There are 300 Confucius Institutes around the world. Photo: Peter Stoop
Washington: Chinese soft-power diplomacy has suffered a major rebuke after the leading association of American university professors accused China's network of Confucius Institutes of flouting basic rules of academic freedom and integrity.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called for agreements between Confucius Institutes and nearly 100 universities to be either cancelled or renegotiated so that they properly reflected Western values of free speech.
"Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom," the AAUP said in a statement, urging US universities to "cease their involvement" with the institutes unless reforms were instituted.
China's network of 300 Confucius Institutes - including 11 on British university campuses - can be a lucrative source of funds for universities but are exempt from many of the basic rules governing academic discourse.
They are designed to project a favourable image of China's ruling Communist Party around the world through language and cultural programmes, but are allowed to restrict discussions of unpalatable topics, such as the occupation of Tibet. "Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China," the AAUP statement added. "Specifically, North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate."
Concerns over how China uses its vast cash resources to buy influence in academia have been mounting in recent years. Earlier this month, The Daily Telegraph disclosed that Cambridge University had allowed a charitable foundation linked to China's former prime minister Wen Jiabao to endow a chair of Chinese development studies.
The universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Cardiff, Central Wales, Nottingham, Sheffield, SOAS, the London School of Economics, London South Bank University, Liverpool and Central Lancashire are all listed as having Confucius Institutes.
In the past, China has batted away criticism of the institutes.
In 2012, the Chinese ambassador to London accused critics of submitting to "Cold War thinking" after Christopher Hughes, a China expert at the London School of Economics, raised concerns about hosting such centres following a scandal over LSE's acceptance of funding from the regime of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Similar concerns were raised earlier this month in Toronto, Canada, after trustees of the Toronto District School Board's new Confucius Institute recommended suspending its partnership with the Chinese government because of concerns over censorship.