The Chinese philosopher Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, traveled widely inside his country but never outside it. Nonetheless, an institute is named for him at N.C. State University.
Since 2007, the Institute, which is based in the McKimmon Center on Western Boulevard, has operated modestly. Its mission “is to enhance intercultural understanding in the U.S. by supporting and organizing Chinese language and culture programs.” It offers three classes this semester — two classes in Mandarin Chinese and Beginner’s Chinese Brush Painting.
But the level of scrutiny of the Institute might be about to change. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said the FBI is “watching warily” activities at dozens of Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-sponsored academies that are often embedded within universities and public schools to offer U.S. students Mandarin language classes.
More than 100 universities and high schools in the U.S. have a Confucius Institute. N.C. State’s has an annual budget of about $400,000; Hanban, the Chinese agency that sponsors the institutes, provides at least $200,000 a year.
“The Chinese government plays no part in the day-to-day activities, oversight or curriculum for the Confucius Institute at N.C. State, and have no staff at the Institute,” Fred Hartman, a spokesman for NCSU, wrote in an email.
“N.C. State’s Confucius Institute is a part of the Office of Global Engagement and its budget is managed by our contracts and grants office. The institute’s director, Anna Dunaway, interviews, hires and trains all staff for the program. All staff are held to the same standards as other N.C. State employees.”
The Confucius Institute at NCSU also is affiliated with “Confucius Classrooms” at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, Enloe High School in Raleigh and Concord High School. Those schools manage their own Chinese language and culture programs but apply for funding through NCSU’s Confucius Institute.
Detractors say there’s substantial evidence that Hanban tells Confucius Institute instructors not to discuss topics deemed sensitive to Beijing, such as the status of Taiwan or the treatment of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in China.
The FBI’s Wray described China as using a lot of “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence and technology, in the business community and in academia, McClatchy’s Tim Johnson reported. “I think the level of naiveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it,” Wray said.
U.S. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., this month asked all Florida institutions that host Confucius Institutes to reconsider their agreements. The University of West Florida said it had already decided not to renew its contract. The University of Chicago and Penn State already had ended their agreements with Hanban.
Critics also say the Chinese government uses Confucius Institutes to keep tabs on Chinese students. NCSU has about 1,300 students from China; none are enrolled in classes at the Confucius Institute.
NCSU’s Confucius Institute has a worthy mission and its classes serve a good purpose. As China’s influence and economy grows, we need Americans who understand the country and speak the language.
That objective is so important, we ought to pay for it. NCSU’s accepting money from the Chinese government is an unnecessary entanglement that raises questions and invites scrutiny.
“The cautious seldom err,” Confucius once said. N.C. State would be wise to heed his counsel.
Drescher, opinion/solutions editor, is at email@example.com; 919.829.4515; @john_drescher.