New research adds nuance to a contentious debate

Confucius Institute instructors receive little political training and experience minimal day-to-day monitoring while teaching abroad, new research suggests, yet they exhibit high levels of political compliance, disseminating the views of the Chinese Communist Party and censoring discussion of sensitive topics.

The findings, by a team of Stanford University researchers, don’t fit neatly into either of the prevailing narratives surrounding the Chinese-government-funded language and cultural centers on American college campuses: The language teachers do not appear to be agents of the Chinese government, as critics, including public officials, have charged. Still, they toe the party line in their classrooms, the researchers found.

“I do hope this work complicates the prevailing narratives,” said Jennifer Pan, an associate professor of communication at Stanford and one of the paper’s authors. “There are two narratives, but it’s really neither.”

Pan and her colleagues, Tongtong Zhang, a doctoral candidate in political science, and Yingjie Fan, now a Ph.D. student at Princeton, reviewed Confucius Institute training and selection materials, conducted an online survey of instructors from around the globe, and did individual interviews with a smaller group of current and former teachers.

They found that while all teachers are required to go through a training program, the curriculum does not include explicit or specific instructions on how to handle political discussions in the classroom, nor are teachers told to adopt certain political behaviors while overseas.

The researchers also found no evidence that the instructors, who do not have to be Communist Party members, were chosen for their political beliefs. In fact, many of the teachers, who typically spend a couple of years abroad, regarded the Confucius Institute assignments as a sort of “gap year” between their university studies and professional careers. The most frequently cited reason for taking a Confucius Institute position, reported by 60 percent of respondents, was to “broaden their horizons.”

While the instructors are overseas, the quasi-government office that runs the centers had little direct control over teachers and was largely unable to monitor what they did in their classrooms. Compliance with particular political stances was not included in teacher evaluations.

Yet, when Pan and her colleagues ran a controlled experiment as part of the survey, they found that the instructors frequently espoused Chinese Communist Party (CCP) positions. Respondents were given one of three prompts — one group was reminded to adhere to CCP principles, another was instructed to “avoid friction” without mention of the government, and a third received only a neutral statement, “People may encounter different scenarios at life and in work.” All were then asked how they would respond if Confucius Institute students or colleagues raised the issue of the political status of Taiwan.

Even among the group given the neutral prompt, 70 percent said they would either change the subject to stop students or colleagues from further discussion, or they would echo the Chinese government line, that Taiwan is part of mainland China.

In open-ended survey responses, as well as interviews, teachers who said they permitted open discussion did so with the goal of persuading others that the CCP view was the correct one, Pan said. Of course, she noted, it was difficult to know the impact of these more-free-flowing discussions — on students and on the instructors themselves.

The Chinese government “enforces the obedience of Confucius Institute teachers not by selecting loyalists, dictating explicit rules of behaviors, or rewarding/sanctioning their political actions,” the researchers conclude. Rather than prescribing behavior, government officials prescribe objectives — that is, they set out broad goals, such as “promote a positive and healthy image of China,” and leave it up to instructors to decide what actions to take.

The Stanford team’s findings inject shades of nuance into the often black-and-white debate around Confucius Institutes: While they are not being sent out explicitly as propagandists, instructors may act as advocates for Chinese-government interests and perspectives.

These conclusions could inform policy making, the researchers suggest. There have been efforts in Congress to more highly regulate, limit, or shut down Confucius Institutes.

Of course, this could be a moot point — political pressure has led to a wave of Confucius Institute closures. There are just 18 centers left in the United States, down from some 120 just a few years ago, according to the National Association of Scholars.

Extra credit: Politico has the story of one graduate student who tried to measure China’s influence on his own campus.

Got a tip or a story idea? Email me at karin.fischer@chronicle.com.

Ex-officials want to exempt STEM graduates from visa caps

A bipartisan group of former national-security officials is calling on Congress to pass legislation exempting international graduates with advanced degrees in science, engineering, and technology from green-card caps.

Some 50 high-ranking former officials, including past secretaries of the U.S. Defense and Homeland Security Departments, and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in a letter to congressional leaders that the government must make it easier for top students and scientists from around the globe to come and stay in the United States. “In today’s technology competition,” they write, ”the most powerful and enduring asymmetric advantage America has is its ability to attract and retain the world’s best and brightest.”

Yet green-card backlogs can be substantial, particularly for applicants from China and India, which account for the largest groups of international STEM graduates from American colleges. For Indian applicants, the projected green-card wait time is 80 years.

The failure to keep such graduates is a “self-inflicted drag” on American competitiveness, the ex-officials write. They say Congress should approve a green-card exemption for STEM graduates in the House version of legislation aimed at helping the United States compete with China.

But some Republican lawmakers have said they would oppose such immigration changes. A final version of the competition bill is being negotiated.

Go deeper: The green-card waiver isn’t the only provision in the competition legislation that is important to American colleges and their international-education efforts. Read more here and here.

Colleges could sponsor refugees under new program

The U.S. Department of State will start a new program to allow private groups, including colleges, to directly sponsor student refugees.

The department announced it is seeking preliminary applications from nongovernmental organizations that would develop and run the operational infrastructure for a pilot private-sponsorship program. The announcement specifically notes a new “education-based sponsorship pathway,” which it said could require specialized expertise.

Higher-education groups had been pushing for the private-sponsorship program as a way to enable colleges to more easily take in refugee students and to widen the pipeline, especially in the wake of dual crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine. The pilot program would allow colleges, along with businesses, religious organizations, and community groups, to sponsor refugees. In addition to meeting students’s educational needs, colleges would be responsible for providing such refugees with financial, logistical, and social supports.

Student refugees can face high barriers to coming to the United States. Because they are displaced, they often have trouble meeting student-visa requirements, which say applicants must demonstrate they have ties to their home countries that will lead them to return after graduation.

The new program will start this year.

Around the globe

In the latest China Initiative case to go to trial, a professor in Illinois was acquitted of grant fraud but was convicted of failing to disclose a Chinese bank account on his tax returns.

A language-proficiency penalty against native-born speakers of foreign languages disadvantages immigrant applicants to the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, a new lawsuit charges.

Quebec is considering its own version of academic-freedom legislation, and it has both supporters and detractors.

Opposition lawmakers in Hungary are pushing to block a Budapest branch campus of China’s Fudan University.

Students in eight Chinese cities have been unable to take Advanced Placement exams because of Covid-related lockdowns.

The Iranian government has threatened to execute a Swedish-Iranian scientist whom it accuses of espionage.

Israel has delayed plans to restrict travel by international scholars and students to the West Bank.

Saudi Arabia’s updated scholarship program will send 70,000 students abroad by 2030.

Graduates of the world’s top 100 universities will be eligible to apply for “golden visas” to settle in the United Arab Emirates.

Regulatory bodies in India will no longer recognize degrees from Pakistani universities, part of continuing tensions between the two countries. It means that graduates’ degrees will no longer qualify them for further study or employment when they return to India.

And finally …

Twenty-five years ago, the American journalist Peter Hessler first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He was sent to a then-remote city, Fuling, on the Yangtze River, where he taught English language and literature. His book about his experience, River Town, has long been regarded as a premier account of a country in the midst of enormous change and what that meant, in particular, for its young people.

Not long before the pandemic, Hessler returned to teach in China, as a professor of writing at Sichuan University. In December 2019 he was reported by students for perceived political wrongdoing; even in hindsight, the circumstances leading to the accusations against him aren’t completely clear. Although he was allowed to continue teaching after an investigation, in the end, Hessler’s contract was not renewed. His latest article, in The New Yorker, recounts the incident and, like his earlier work, paints a portrait of Chinese students. Today’s students are less nationalistic than pragmatic, capable of sophisticated analysis of sensitive work, like the writings of George Orwell, but are watchful and wary. “My students at Sichuan University were old souls,” Hessler writes. “They knew how things worked; they understood the system’s flaws and also its benefits.”

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at karin.fischer@chronicle.com. You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.