BEIJING (Reuters) - A leading U.S. university has closed a Chinese government-backed culture and research center in a row over the terms of a renewal agreement, in a decision a Chinese official said was made before ascertaining the facts and the truth.
The University of Chicago said last week it would suspend negotiations to renew the Confucius Institute on the school’s campus, citing comments in the media that were “incompatible with a continued equal partnership”.
China says its Confucius Institutes around the world are established by universities voluntarily, and that such centers are designed to promote Chinese-language learning and academic and cultural exchange.
But the institutes have raised concerns that they threaten academic freedom, conduct surveillance of Chinese students abroad and promote the political aims of China’s ruling Communist Party.
An article in state-run Liberation Daily in mid-September cited Xu Lin, the head of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, also called Hanban, as suggesting that University of Chicago officials had folded in negotiations over renewing the Institute’s campus branch, which opened in 2010.
The article mentioned a petition signed by about 100 University of Chicago professors who had expressed concern over the Institute’s impact on academic freedom and urged its closure.
“The Hanban regrets that the University of Chicago made a decision before ascertaining the facts and the truth,” Hanban Vice Director Hu Zhiping told Reuters in a faxed statement on Tuesday.
“The Confucius Institute is a China-U.S. bilateral cooperation project and both sides have the right to choose,” Hu said without elaborating.
The university said in its statement that it “is guided by its core values and faculty leadership in all matters of academic importance”. It did not mention worries about academic freedoms.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Monday that the all Confucius Institutes, of which there are more than 100 in the United States, are established based on schools’ invitations.
“Confucius Institutes provide teachers, teaching materials and other support based on the U.S.-side’s voluntary request. They are never forced upon people and it is impossible that they would threaten university academic freedom or integrity,” Hua said.
Despite tight government control over curriculum, many foreign universities have rushed to establish partnerships with China in an effort to improve access to the country’s huge educational market. That has created unease about whether schools would be forced to sacrifice academic freedoms.
Xia Yeliang, a prominent Chinese professor and dissident who was fired from the elite Beijing University last year, has warned that academic exchanges with China carry hidden risks, such as visiting scholars who may be sent as spies.
Reporting by Michael Martina and Sui-Lee Wee