Confucius Institutes and US-China Exchange: An Interview with Edward McCord


Edward McCord is Professor Emeritus of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University, specializing in Chinese history. He is the author of The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism (University of California Press) and Military Force and Elite Power in the Making of Modern China (Routledge). He has published numerous articles, focusing mainly on the role and impact of the military in modern Chinese society, in journals such as Modern China, Twentieth-Century China, and Modern Asian Studies. He is also the Editor of the American Journal of Chinese Studies. Professor McCord helped establish the Confucius Institute at The George Washington University.

The Carter Center China China Program Intern, Kathryn Putz, conducted this interview on February 16th, 2021.

First, could you elaborate a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m actually from Indiana, so I’m a Midwesterner. I did my PhD in Chinese history at University of Michigan. During that time, I also did two years of research in China from 1981 to 1983, and got my degree in ’85. My first position was at the University of Florida for about eight years, and then I moved to George Washington University. I also had another year in China, ’91 to ’92, doing more research, and spent two years in Taiwan in the ’70s, so five years total living in East Asia and China.

Since the early 2000s, Chinese government-run Confucius Institutes have been established across the United States, where faculty from China provide instruction on Chinese language and culture. Could you expand on the historical context of Confucius Institutes in the U.S.? What are some of the purposes they serve at American universities?

They play a different role in different universities. For example, I think there was one that was in a music school, and so they focused on exchanges involving music. But the heart of all Confucius Institutes is really language instruction. You can’t have a Confucius Institute unless you’re doing language instruction.

At George Washington, We actually made a decision early on that we were also not going to do other programming that involved contemporary issues, and I think that’s really been true across the board now. There is this concern about how the Chinese could use Confucius Institutes for propaganda. We had one incident at the beginning where we received an offer to have someone from the Chinese embassy come talk about China’s current foreign policy.” And our response was, sure, we do that with other people from other countries all the time. We’re in Washington, DC, and ambassadors come and give talks about their country, and you understand that that’s what they’re doing. They’re presenting their country’s view. But after the talk we realized that this was not good for the Confucius Institute–to have it sponsor an official from China to talk about Chinese policy. People were going to say we were using the Confucius Institute to spread propaganda. So we made a very clear decision. Our policy is that we only do culture and language. We don’t do anything about contemporary affairs. The other side of that, of course, is that we have an Asia Center in our Elliott School of International Affairs that does programming on contemporary affairs. Indeed, we can do presentations about Tibet and Taiwan and Xinjiang and anything else we want to in other parts of the university. So we never envisioned the Confucius Institute to be the center of all Chinese studies. It was simply a center that does specific things with language instruction. And that is true for most Confucius Institutes.

The difference might be between large and small schools. We’re a large university. We have our own Chinese Language Department. We never had Chinese Confucius Institute instructors teach classes in the Chinese Language Department for credit. There was from the start a concern that we should not hand over credit-teaching classes to non-faculty in this area. The people coming from China to teach in the Confucius Institute are faculty from Chinese institutions, but they’re not hired as US faculty–they’re exchange scholars. While many universities do have agreements where exchange scholars are invited to teach regular classes on a short term basis, we decided that the goal of the Confucius Institute should not be to supplement for-credit classes. So at George Washington, the Confucius Institute instructors teach outside non-credit classes. This is very useful in Washington because about 200 people a year take classes with our Confucius Institute. It’s people from the State Department or from business groups or private people who want to learn Chinese, and also graduate students who often can’t afford college tuition for Chinese. I think that’s mainly the pattern. In smaller schools, though, where without the Confucius Institute they would have no Chinese language instruction, a lot of them are teaching for-credit classes. So they’re incorporated into whatever departmental structure they have for language instruction. But I believe this only occurs in a small number of cases.

Then, on top of that, almost all Confucius Institutes do some cultural programming. So we have lectures on poetry, lectures on calligraphy, demonstrations of art–that kind of cultural activity. I think that’s also true for almost all Confucius Institutes. Then a lot of them also have exchange programs, where they send students to China. But it is not always easy to develop a specific exchange program with the partner institution in China. And in our case we already have lots of exchange programs, and they’re very strong—so there was no reason to create a new exchange program out of the Confucius Institute.

One additional thing our Confucius Institute does is to provide funding for faculty research on China. It’s been very good in the sense that we basically decide who gets the money. Although we’ve never had this situation yet, I think it is possible that some topics for research in China wouldn’t get approved, by the Chinese government–but that’s true for all scholarships to go to China. I’ve had several scholarships in China, and they review your proposals, and if they don’t like it, you don’t go. That’s their prerogative. But at least so far, all the applicants that approached us for funding through our Confucius Institute have been accepted–about eight or nine a year—with no problems. We only stopped this year because there’s no way to go to China to do the research.

And in a couple other cases, they actually provided funding for a new position in Chinese studies of some sort. But, again, the problem for the Chinese is they would like to control who gets appointed and no university will allow that. You have an open search, and you hire who you hire, and then they just have to accept it.  So this never because a major feature.

I know there were some little schools at the beginning that seemed to be weird locations for Confucius Institutes in terms of their areas of specialization. I think this happened initially because larger schools weren’t willing to do it because they were worried about criticism about having programs with China. So a lot of little schools got onboard that probably shouldn’t have, and that had very small programs. I’ve heard of one recently that closed, not because of any specific trouble, but because the Chinese enrollments level were so low. This school was simply too small to have a normal-sized class in Chinese all the time, so they just shut it down.

Besides Confucius Institutes located mainly in colleges or universities, there are also Confucius Classrooms, which are in high schools and elementary schools. There they just send a graduate student in Chinese language instruction over to help run Chinese language programs. That, again, is meeting the demand. I’m from a little town in Indiana, with 20,000 people, and they now teach Chinese. It used to be Greek and Latin and European languages, but now they teach Chinese. There were lot of students were going to China in the years when the Confucius Institutes and Classrooms started (2009, 2010, 2011), and people were seeing China as a place for job opportunities. But you had to have Chinese. You can’t go to Shanghai and get an internship and just do it in English. So the supply had to meet the demand, and that worked its way down through the educational system, where people said, “Well, we’d like to have our kids have a head start in getting Chinese in high school.” So the Confucius classrooms really helped with that. That, again, shows the heart of the Confucius Institutes–language instruction.

Can you expand on your role in establishing the Confucius Institute at George Washington University?

Well, we actually first considered it back when they first started, maybe 2009 or so, but we turned it down at first. Actually, we were very skeptical at the beginning. One of the things I remember was a rather big demand for office space, like, “You will provide a suite of four offices.” For a university in an urban setting, it’s very hard to promise all sorts of space. But the other one was there was a condition we heard from other people about how you had to agree to the One China principle before you could get a Confucius Institute, and that just kind of killed it. We weren’t going to do that. We wouldn’t be forced to take a political stand.

I think one of the things that happened with the Confucius Institutes that they learned–it was a learning process on both sides–that the Chinese had to give on something, too. We started to look at it again in 2011, and that political condition, if it had really even been there, was gone. But it still took us a year and a half to do it. So we started in the summer of 2011. It wasn’t fully established until January, I think, of 2013. It mainly worked because we had a Dean of our College of Arts and Sciences that was very eager to do it. But we also had faculty support.

One of the interesting things I found out as we started this process, was that we were already receiving three Chinese instructors from Hanban (CI headquarters) in China for free because our Chinese language people had gone to China and said, “Look, we’re desperate. We have all these students. We don’t have enough teachers.” They gave us three teachers, and that was with no strings attached, just kind of like, “Okay, you provide housing for them. We’ll pay them and send them over.” So I think that’s really where the Confucius Institutes started, there was this demand from all sorts of schools around the country and they were learning that if you went to China and begged for teachers, they would send you some, so why not begin to formalize that kind of relationship? So there was a key moment in time when both sides were very accommodating.

In origin, it was always explained to us that the Chinese never expected these Institutes to become permanent ways of teaching Chinese. In other words, China was not taking control of teaching Chinese in America. They simply realized that in the short run there were not enough teachers and that part of the things the Confucius Institutes were supposed to do was to aid in the creation of more American teachers of Chinese and that, ultimately, they would be teaching Chinese on our own. Then, you wouldn’t need the Confucius Institutes, or maybe they would shift into something different. So it was, I think, a perfect point in time. And the other thing, of course, is when we were doing this in 2009 or so, when Obama had his 100,000 Strong campaign. He wanted to encourage 100,000 American exchange students going to China. So there was that vibe at the time that this is a time when we should be doing more exchanges with China. It all came together for us right at that time.

In any case, there were a number of faculty in different schools of the University, including myself (I am in the School of International Affairs) who thought we should take another look at creating a Confucius Institute, but it was the Dean of Arts and Sciences who led the way. Even so I think none of us thought it would take as long as it did—over a year and a half.

Among our activities was a trip to China for the Dean and some of the other people involved to look into possible partners. All Confucius Institutes are, at least officially, a partnership between one institution and another. So we went to Nanjing University and to Wuhan University. Wuhan University was the one that was supposed to be selected, but their leadership changed and we ended up with Nanjing University instead. We did this trip one year after we started negotiations, and then they had their people come to us sometime in the fall term of 2012. Then, finally, our agreement wasn’t signed till the very end of 2012 and was started up in the early part of 2013.

In recent years, especially since the election of President Trump in 2016, scrutiny and backlash towards China has heightened among the American public. In your opinion, what has contributed to these opinions and what effect has worsening US-China relations had on people to people exchange programs such as Confucius Institutes?

I don’t blame it all on Trump–it was starting before Trump. When the Confucius Institute started, it was the high point of feel-good times with our relationship with China. Back then, they also accepted that we don’t do political events in the Confucius Institute. It’s like a training program you have with people that do academic exchanges with universities. We do a lot of this in Washington because embassies are always pushing us to do things, and we say, “Well, you realize if we do this, there’s going to be people giving two opinions of both sides.” China didn’t realize that was true. At the beginning, they thought, “Well, now, you have Confucius Institutes. You’re going to do what we want, right?” Well, no, that’s not what we do. So I think they learned that lesson as well. It was a good time where the Chinese were also making accommodations.

I think in the last few years, maybe going back 2018, there’s been a shift in many, even scholars, on how they feel about China-U.S. relations. We’ve always done this in American politics. When there was a president election, both candidates will say, “Well, we’re going to get tough on China.” But when they got there, the reality of it was we knew China was rising anyway. Are we going to oppose that, or do we help out? So you also have this Thucydides dilemma, that a rising power will always conflict with the old powers.  Is that what we really were looking forward to? Were we going to set ourselves up for that?

So the decision made by most policymakers at that time and scholars was that it would be better for us to try to work with China and try to ease them towards integration in the international community. That’s basically what we did, supporting their entry into the World Trade Organization and all these other organizations, doing investments in China, and encouraging trade. It was kind of a real extension of a hand from the United States to China saying, “Here, we’d like to help instead of oppose you.” But the assumption always was that down the road there would be a payoff as China would get more integrated into the world system and that they would open up even more and more, that they would make the structural adjustments needed to stay in these organizations.

A growing disappointment in the last couple of years, or, actually, before Trump, was that China was no longer doing that. Things were actually getting tighter in areas such as intellectual property problems, the openness of the Chinese economy to US business,  etc.—there was basically a feeling that China had stopped its opening process and was clamping down. So there was already a growing sense that China was becoming a problem and we needed to do more.

So Trump arrives right at that key moment, I think, where there was opinion that the United States needed to start being a little bit tougher on China. The problem was that he didn’t have a strategy for this. It was more like, “We’re going to do something about trade.” In its specifics it was a really wrong-headed policy, but, in some ways, it fed into that sense we had to do something. It’s not a strategic policy that we’re following now. It just created a general anti-China feeling. Still it has real base in things like intellectual property, trade, other issues that people are very concerned about in China, and events in Taiwan and Hong Kong and all these other issues. So there’s this accumulation of things that people are worried about China.

This anti-China feeling was also turned against the Confucius Institutes. However, I see this anti-Confucius Institute campaign primarily as a Cold War kind of bias. It’s mainly based on accusations and claims that can’t be supported. We assume these evil things are going on. Therefore, we have to shut them all down instead of saying, “What can we do to enhance our relationship, and what can we do to improve places where are relations are in trouble?”

Former President Carter recently wrote to President Biden asking him to encourage more Confucius Institutes to open in the United States. Do you think that opening and reopening Confucius Institutes in the U.S. is feasible in the near future?

I think it would be good. Feasible is another issue because it is political. Right now, what a lot of Confucius Institutes are facing is this threat that they will remove all government funding from your university if you have a Confucius Institute. So you can’t now receive any Defense Department awards if you have a Confucius Institute. The argument is since you’ve handed over your Chinese language instruction to the Chinese and, therefore, the Chinese are now controlling your program, we don’t want to send our money to you. It’s just crazy because that’s not what’s going on.

What former President Carter did is courageous because this is going against the tide. Everybody wants to close Confucius Institutes now. Everybody wants to be anti-China. But that’s not a rational policy. The long-term interest in the United States is not to turn China into Cuba where we cut off all relations with them. We have to get along with China somehow. So what we should be looking for is ways to do that, and one of the ways that has actually been very successful is through the Confucius Institutes.

One argument about the Confucius Institutes is that they are run by the Chinese government; therefore, we’re allowing the Chinese government to control us. Of course, no exchange with China is without political influence, right? If you have an academic exchange in China, there are no independent schools who are outside of government control. Anything you do with China has a connection to the Chinese government. But what we need to do is have exchanges where that people-to-people interactions can happen, even under these conditions, and to limit the amount of ways in which the government  puts limits on those exchanges from both sides.

So I think the initiative by President Carter is important, I think it’s good, and I think people should pay attention because it’s one of these successful programs. It’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water. People seem to be saying, we have trouble with intellectual property, so let’s get rid of the Confucius Institutes. That’s not going to make the Chinese go, “Oh, well, let’s change our policy on intellectual property.” We need to address the problems as they exist, not try to poke at something else to get back at them.

According to a 2018 Asia Society report on Chinese influence and American interests, Chinese Communist party initiatives in the United Front Work Department (UFWD) to advance policy objectives in the US have increased significantly in recent years. These initiatives–such as the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and Confucius Institutes–promote the acceptance of CCP rule and endorse its legitimacy. Do you believe China is undermining the American democracy through these so-called United Front measures? 

My response is: prove it. Of course, no educational association in China is independent. Even NGOs in China, non-governmental associations, are run by the government. Anything you’re going to deal with in China, you work with the government. The point is what influence does that have?

I’ve pulled up this report from the Asian Society. It starts with, “The Confucius Institutes provide the Chinese government access to US student bodies.” Even though this is supposed to be a summary of that report, I’ve read that entire report, and that’s not what it says. I mean, “Provides government access to US student bodies?” That’s kind of a vague charge. What does that actually mean? The Chinese government’s coming in and doing things to American students or controlling American students somehow?

They assume that since the government helps run Hanban, the government must be running the Confucius Institutes. But, actually, all these programs have, at the minimum, 50% American representation. These are collaborative relationships between an institution in China and an institution in the United States with 50% control by the American side. That means there’s nothing the Chinese government can do to force Americans to do something they don’t want to do. It always has to be a mutual agreement. What the Chinese have learned through all this is that Americans are not very agreeable to anything that might slip over that barrier.

The Government Accountability Office did a study where they said, “We found no evidence that the Americans are not in control, that the American directors are not in control.” There’s always a Chinese director and an American director. The Chinese director manages the classes; they are professionals who do the language classes. But they don’t decide policy. They don’t decide the university’s curriculum on China. They don’t control university policy on China. Indeed, they have no influence on university policy on China. The Confucius Institutes are not a Chinese government presence on the U.S. campus that does things to American students or even carries out propaganda.

Again, that’s a very good thing about the Stanford report. My colleague David Shambaugh worked on that. He went to our Confucius Institute and looked through all the materials they provided and could not find any political content, and this is generally true. The argument that somehow they’re using the Confucius Institutes to spread propaganda is simply not true. My answer is, okay, you claim that that’s true. Show me. Show me where that happened. We’ve now had Confucius Institutes for over a decade. Where’s the evidence? There is none. So I don’t really think these things are threats.

I think the Chinese Student Association Group is another story. There are these subtle threats the Chinese government can do to put pressure on Chinese students, saying, “You should protest this activity going on in your campus.” I worry about the Chinese students more than I worry about our students. Our students still know what’s going on. No American student goes into an event with, say, the Chinese ambassador giving a speech and says, “Oh my God, the Chinese are right and we’re wrong.” And they go to China the same way. In fact, going to China for our students on exchange programs is really crucial because you get to see what it’s really like. People don’t come back and say, “Oh my God, I want to be a Communist,” because what they see in China is not very much Communism anymore.

I think our students are much smarter than that. If the Chinese thought this was going to turn people into advocates for China, it’s not working. There’s also been studies done about how Americans think about China. Since the start of the Confucius Institutes, American opinions of China have actually gone down. We have more activity and all these exchanges and the Confucius Institutes, but the perception of China as the Chinese government is not any better. So, it has not been successful in that sense.

I don’t think that means there’s less interest in China or fewer people who want to go to China. There’s a real split between how we see the Chinese government and how we see the Chinese people and Chinese culture. We’ve always been fascinated with Chinese culture. We’re just not so crazy about the government. I see no indication our students have ever been somehow turned against their own government because of Chinese propaganda in our schools.

But the Chinese government has got this enormous propaganda component now, such newspapers that they print and distribute. But nobody takes those things seriously. You’re not going to go pick up a Chinese-sponsored newspaper in the United States hoping to get the real story. You take it with a grain of salt. Anybody that reads that knows that. If you read it at all, it’s because you want to see what the Chinese are saying, not because you’re going, “Wow, this is where I go get my hard facts here.” In any case, don’t think Confucius Institutes provide legitimacy to the Chinese the government, and I don’t think it provides propaganda. There’s just no evidence of that whatsoever.

In your view, what role do people to people exchanges–such as Confucius Institute-funded study abroad and language-learning programs–play in fostering positive U.S.-China relations?

I think they are really important. In the past we may have thought that people to people exchanges would be able to change policy. I’m not really sure if that happened. But it certainly does create better understanding. I can best put this in my own experience. I started off doing Chinese history, totally enamored by it, but I didn’t really understand anything until I went to Taiwan for two years, So it was one thing after taking classes on China in the US to believe, “Yeah, now I know what the Chinese people think,” but it is really different when you see it on the ground. So I can never really explain one point where that happened, except I knew I was totally transformed by that experience.

I had the same experience going off to China in 1981. At the time we were all very much romantics about what Mao had done in the Cultural Revolution. Then you get there and you go, “Oh my God.” You actually talk to people. Without that, I would’ve been teaching about China later in a way that was not based in reality. That experience of living in China for two years refined what I thought about China, what I said about China, and how I taught about China.

I take some tour groups through the Smithsonian there, and people are always amazed by what they see. Things are really different and better, right? Should we not want to send people over China because we’re afraid they’ll see that China’s has indeed gotten better? We need people to understand how things really are on the ground. For our students, that’s particularly true. They’re the future citizens. They need to understand how to look at other countries and have some kind of empathy for those countries.

I think it also works the other direction. One of my main critiques is that we don’t take good enough care of the Chinese students that come here. They end up in little groups of Chinese all by themselves. When I’d go off to China in the past, they’d meet you at the airport and take you to your dorm, and take care of you. When the Chinese students first came here, they’d say, “Well, who’s going to meet me at the airport,” and we’d say, “Meet you at the airport? We don’t do that. Just show up and then look for some housing for yourself.” They’ve never done anything like this before. They’ve never rented an apartment. Their English is weak, and they’re being told to show up at the airport, take a taxi into town, and start looking for an apartment, and then show up on the first day of school, there’ll be a little orientation on your classes. So the Chinese students basically provided this kind of help for each other. Students already there would help the new students coming in.

So we lose an opportunity there by not having more ways to interact with the Chinese students. If you look back with our relationship with Taiwan, the political leadership in Taiwan came to America first for studies. That had a major impact, and they were much better integrated in our society because there were a smaller number of them than the Chinese students there are today. They went back to Taiwan and worked to build democracy, right? It’s important that they could actually see how it worked in the US, and what it meant ,and they took this back with them. We could do the same thing with Chinese students. I don’t think it’s a matter of just how exchanges. help our students, though I do think it helps our students tremendously as citizens. It also helps their people understand the United States. At some level, maybe its is not a way to change the minds of the entire Chinese people, but incrementally it influences the people that are most important, the people that are going to take leadership positions. So I think it’s very valuable.

Moving into the Biden administration, what steps do you think the US should take to improve the state of people to people exchange between the US and China?

I think the attack on Confucius Institutes has to stop, but it’s not going to. Almost everybody in Congress seems to be afraid to say that anything Chinese should be supported, so I’m very pessimistic about that. But, on the other hand, the Stanford-Asian Society report talks a lot about reciprocity, and is an approach we might take. One of my students was given a Fulbright to go to China. Before she arrived, her school sent her a message saying, “Oh, we’ve just received a new regulation for the government, and that is that no foreign student coming to study in China is allowed to study any social aspects or political aspects of Chinese society.” Basically this undermined the entire project she had been approve to so. And now you’re not allowed to look at anything involving Chinese people at all. This is somewhat of a return to what I experienced when we first went there in ’81, which had the same kind of restrictions. So China seems to be going backward. In the meantime, Chinese students coming here don’t have these types restrictions, right? So how can we work with the Chinese to make sure there is true reciprocity instead of one-sided restrictions on Americans in China.

It’s the same way, I think, in business exchange relationships. Instead of heavy-handed tariffs, we should looking at what the actual problems are. If the Chinese are doing something to us, what can we do back? I remember one case where they were complaining about our treatment of Huawei, that all that China’s asking for is a level playing field in the United States. Why can’t the United States have a level playing field for Chinese companies in the United States? Our response would be, “Well, why can’t American companies have a level playing field in China?”

The sense is that Chinese are not balancing our good will anymore and that they might end up using their dominance in certain areas to actually turn the tables against us. So there has to be more attention to specific areas of conflict that are resolvable in terms of things like trade and educational exchanges and so on. China would not normally let us open up George Washington Institutes to Chinese universities. We allow Confucius Institutes. So the Confucius Institute, you might say, was a good first step on our side. But then how are the Chinese going to reciprocate on that? We need to have those kind of conversations.

Click here to watch the video of this interview.