Confucian Institutes are public educational partnerships between colleges and universities in China and colleges and universities in other countries. In 2019, Inside Higher Ed described Confucian Institutes as follows:
The Confucius Institutes have long been controversial. The centers vary somewhat across different campuses, but they typically offer some combination of Mandarin language classes, cultural programming and outreach to K‑12 schools and the community more broadly. They are staffed in part with visiting teachers from China and funded by the Chinese government, with matching resources provided by the host institution. The number of U.S. universities hosting the institutes increased rapidly after the first was established at the University of Maryland College Park in 2004, growing to more than 90 at the peak.
Criticism of the Confucian Institutes comes largely from a collection of conservative think tanks as well as from the FBI. According to the conservative National Association of Scholars:
Hanban, the CCP agency overseeing Confucius Institutes, currently holds a remarkable level of control over the institutes’ curricula and faculty. Consequently, CIs function more as propaganda outlets and less as the “linguistic and cultural centers” they purport to be. CIs routinely sweep Chinese political history and human rights abuses under the rug; they speak of Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China; they frequently recruit card-carrying members of the CCP to instruct courses; and, as Peterson puts it, they teach “a generation of American students to know nothing more of China than the regime’s official history.” As of now, the Hanban simply has to throw large sums of money at college and university administrations to coerce compliance.
In 2018, the FBI director Christopher Wray testified before a US Senate panel:
We do share concerns about the Confucius institutes,” Wray responded. “We’ve been watching that development for a while. It’s just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we’re watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps.”
The Institutes do also have their defenders. For example, according to Inside Higher Ed, a prominent US academic has said:
Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and the author of Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2015), a book critical of CIs, said he thinks the main reason for the closures is “pressure from the American right, including the National Association of Scholars [which issued a critical report of CIs in 2017], as well as lawmakers, and from security agencies of the U.S., notably the FBI: a coalition of political forces responding distantly to the developing Cold War with China — raising even older terrors such as Communism and the Yellow Peril — and proximately to drumbeat rumors that CIs are centers of espionage. Those that give other, face-saving reasons are probably protecting their academic cum financial relations to China, such their intake of tuition-paying mainland students.”