The University of Kentucky closed its Confucius Institute yesterday. I have mixed feelings, as I discuss in my latest at the Diplomat:
The case against Confucius Institutes (CIs) is well known; they provide an outlet for whitewashing the authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party on U.S. college campuses, essentially representing an outpost of the CCP in the United States (and elsewhere). However, the idea that Confucius Institutes offer a particularly virulent vector for spreading Chinese propaganda is based on a complete misunderstanding of how undergraduate education works, and is largely nonsense. American undergraduates understand what propaganda is and will likely treat “fact based” alternatives generated by the U.S. government with the same level of disdain that they treat current CCP offerings. Indeed, existing research on the effect of Confucius Institute programs on student attitudes suggests that they have little to no significant impact on how students view China or the CCP.
That said, there are strong reasons to worry about the influence of CIs on campus life. The idea that CIs provide access to travel and research funding for a wide array of American academics is of significant concern, as is the case with all external funding. Seed funding does not necessarily affect conclusions, but it certainly can, and it can also establish a relationship between the funder and the researcher that could prove problematic. The impact of CIs on campus political climate in terms of discussion of Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang is real, although usually manageable. The effect of the presence of a CI on the community of expatriate Chinese students is probably the most serious concern, although we lack good research about how significant that impact is.