Metro

Chinese institute at UMass Boston is accused of promoting censorship

Above: The University of Massachusetts Boston campus. Confucius Institutes are on more than 90 campuses.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File
Above: The University of Massachusetts Boston campus. Confucius Institutes are on more than 90 campuses.

A group of UMass Boston students, professors, and alumni as well as outside advocates are raising concerns about the Confucius Institute that operates on its campus, accusing it of promoting censorship abroad and undermining human rights.

The Chinese government oversees the center, one of more than 90 on campuses across the United States and abroad and one of two in the state.

“Confucius Institutes use their foothold in prominent academic institutions to influence and steer academic discourse,” the group said in a recent letter to interim chancellor Barry Mills, asking for a meeting to discuss their concerns.

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The organizer of the objectors said she hopes to persuade the university to shut down the campus institute.

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The protest is part of a wave of opposition to these centers, which are advertised as tools for cultural exchange and Chinese languages education.

At the University of Massachusetts Boston, the protesters say they are concerned simply that an entity controlled by the communist Chinese government operates within the university. And, they say, they are worried that it recently helped to open similar centers in two local public high schools.

For several years, advocates for academic freedom have expressed alarm about Confucius centers. In 2009, they criticized North Carolina State University after it canceled a talk by the Dalai Lama, reportedly to avoid offending China, which funded a Confucius Institute at that school.

The letter to UMass said the Confucius centers shape public opinion on controversial issues such as Tibetan independence, China’s relationship with Taiwan, and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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“As a result of their presence on campus, whether through direct intervention, or pre-emptive self-censorship, important political and human rights issues are being silenced,” the writers said.

A spokesman for the University of Massachusetts said in a statement that the center has contributed to the campus by providing Chinese languages and cultural appreciation programs.

“We think the institute has filled the role envisioned when it was established in 2006, with the goal of advancing ‘the mutual understanding of language and culture,’ ” said the statement from Bob Connolly.

The UMass center director, Baifeng Sun, declined to speak with the Globe. Gao Qing, executive director of the Confucius Institute US Center in Washington, D.C., which oversees institutes in the United States, said in an e-mail that the center is dedicated to promoting mutual understanding.

“A great number of students, community members, and language teachers have been empowered by and benefited from our educational efforts,” he wrote.

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Unlike cultural institutes run by other foreign governments, such as the stand-alone L’Alliance Française and Goethe-Institut, the Confucius Institutes are located on American campuses.

The center at UMass Boston offers non-credit Chinese languages and culture classes as well as grants for UMass students to study in China. The center also provides professional development programs for Chinese-language teachers in the region, sponsors a Chinese speech contest for high school students, and works to foster “scholarly and business collaborations” between China and the United States, according to a UMass spokesman. There is also an institute at Tufts University.

The UMass center operated with a budget of about half a million dollars last year, according to information from the university, including $100,000 from UMass and almost all of the remainder from the Chinese government, including the salary of five employees.

In 2013, UMass extended its original six-year agreement with the institute for another five years, according to a copy of the contract provided by the university.

Amid growing concerns about censorship and propaganda, the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University ended their partnerships with the Confucius Institute in 2014.

The center at Chicago closed after more than 100 professors signed a petition calling for the school to cut the center because it lacked control over hiring and training of teachers, according to the Wall Street Journal. When the school cut ties with the center, however, it did not cite academic freedom, instead saying that published remarks about the university by the leader of the Chinese governmental organization that oversees the institutes were “incompatible with a continued equal partnership.”

The school board of Toronto canceled a potential deal with a center the same year, and another Canadian university shut down its center after one of its teachers complained she was forced to hide her religious beliefs.

The UMass letter was signed by 17 people, including the president of the Boston Language Institute, the director of the Lam Rim Buddhist Center, and the chair of the international board of directors of Students for a Free Tibet, along with people affiliated with the university.

It was organized by Lhadon Tethong, the director of the Tibetan Action Institute, an advocacy organization.

“This is the beginning of a campaign to get that Confucius Institute closed,” Tethong said.

She said the group is horrified that the center has worked to open so-called “Confucius Classrooms” in two public schools, Brockton High School and Cambridge Rindge and Latin.

“This is just one part of a very scary plan by the Chinese government,” Tethong said.

In 2014, the American Association of University Professors published a study that found the centers “function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.”

The study recommended that Confucius Institutes be closed unless college administrators can ensure total control over academic matters.

Hank Reichman, who chairs a committee on academic freedom and tenure for the association, said the group hoped the study would prompt faculty on individual campuses to ask questions of their administrations.

“What’s unusual about the Confucius Institute is this tendency where they provide the faculty, where they seem to have a say-so in curriculum,” he said. “That’s what is potentially really bothersome.”

Michael Hartt, a music professor at UMass Boston, said he signed the letter because he is concerned about Chinese human rights issues that he worked on with Amnesty International.

“It’s really out of character with the kind of openness and free expression of ideas that one expects of an urban college like UMass Boston,” he said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.