The recent removal by a Beijing-backed language school embedded on a university campus in the United States of a reference to the democratic island of Taiwan has sparked concern that Chinese political censorship is compromising freedom of speech far beyond its borders.
Journalism award winner Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who gave a keynote address at Savannah State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, found that an entry on her biography saying she had worked in Taiwan had been removed.
"I’d listed the self-governing island as one of the places where I’d reported," Allen-Ebrahimian wrote in Foreign Policy magazine after the event. "But in the printed materials for the event, the reference to Taiwan had been removed."
She said the award she won was underwritten by the local Confucius Institute, whose Beijing-funded staff are trained in China and instilled with Communist Party teachings before being posted overseas.
On the day Allen-Ebrahimian accepted her award, Luo Qijuan, co-director of the on-campus institute at Savannah State, came over to criticize her for making China look bad when she spoke about Beijing's crackdown on freedom of expression and persecution of ethnic minority groups during her keynote speech.
Allen-Ebrahimian later learned that Luo was also behind the editing of her biography.
Sulaiman Gu, a Chinese rights activist currently studying chemistry at the University of Georgia, said that while Confucius Institutes should be free to promote the Chinese government's point of view, they shouldn't do so to the exclusion of all other views.
"There is a certain degree of logic to the Confucius Institute wanting to put forward its own understanding of the situation, because it is in a campus where there is freedom of speech," Gu told RFA. "But precisely because there is freedom of speech, it can't force others to accept that version."
"It shouldn't seek to silence all other opinions."
Nondisclosure clauses, unacceptable concessions
Once lauded as the jewel in the crown of China's "soft power" cultural diplomacy, Confucius Institutes have sprung up at hundreds of colleges and teaching institutions around the world.
Partnering with local academic centers, their stated aim is to teach people to speak Chinese, as well as broadening people's experience of Chinese culture in general.
But academics say that Confucius Institutes, which are effectively an arm of the Chinese state, also have a hidden agenda: to promote Beijing's political views overseas.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has warned that cooperation agreements underpinning Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.
It said such political agendas are typically allowed to flourish in U.S. colleges and universities, even when curriculum choices and academic debate are restricted as a result.
In February, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida hit out at the continuing presence of Confucius Institutes in the state, prompting at least one college not to renew its agreement with the Hanban, the Chinese government body that oversees and funds them.
The University of West Florida later announced it would not be renewing its contract with the Confucius Institute, citing lack of student interest in its exchange programs.
Rubio, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, wrote: "I remain deeply concerned by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in the United States."
"Given China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad, I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement."
Rubio said Confucius Institutes hold "decidedly illiberal views of education and academic freedom."
“We know from multiple reports that topics, such as the status of Tibet and Taiwan, the fourth of June 1989 at Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, and universal human rights, are off-limits at these institutes,” he wrote.
Growing sensitivity on Taiwan
The University of Chicago, Texas A&M University, Pennsylvania State University and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario have already shut down their Confucius Institutes.
Gu said Rubio's warning was entirely reasonable.
"Through such practices [as censoring references to Taiwan], Confucius Institutes can largely control perceptions of China among young people in the West who have just begun to learn Chinese," Gu said. "When they finish their studies, they [could go on to] play a pivotal role in determining those countries' policies towards China."
China has recently shown growing sensitivity to the use of the word "Taiwan," especially where its usage implies a territory that is distinct and separate from the rest of China.
Last month, Beijing's Civil Aviation Administration requested that foreign airlines to take "Taiwan," "Hong Kong" and "Macao" out of their lists of countries, or standalone destinations.
The request, which came as President Xi Jinping begins an indefinite term in office with the aim of making China a global superpower, was rejected by the U.S. government as "Orwellian nonsense."
"China is more powerful nowadays, so it is bolder about wanting its say in world affairs," Gu said. "Xi Jinping has been saying for a long time that he wants China to take part in global governance. He wants to govern, and to spread his views and Beijing's views all round the world.
Taiwan has been ruled separately from mainland China since the nationalist government of the 1911 Republic of China fled to the island after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.
The majority of its 23 million residents are happy with self-rule, and the island has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.
Liang Yunxiang, international relations professor at Peking University, said that Beijing has been stepping up the pressure on the island's government since President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016.
"Since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power, they have been unwilling to recognize the one China principle," Liang said, referring to a 1992 consensus that both the mainland and Taiwan are parts of a single territory currently under different governments.
"China is very angry about this, and is therefore constantly putting pressure on [Taiwan]."
Reported by Wang Yun for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.