Confucius Institutes and the Corporate Sector: An Emerging Avenue for Chinese Communist Party Foreign Influence?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 17

Image: Representatives from 17 Chinese companies (11 shown in the picture) sign contracts with Hanban at the "Confucius Institute Partnership Project” signing ceremony held during the 13th Confucius Institute Conference on December 5th, 2018 in Chengdu (Sichuan Province). (Source: The Commercial Press)

September 27 will mark 15 years since the opening of the first Confucius Institute in South Korea in 2004. Today, over 500 of these Chinese government-funded centers operate in more than 150 countries worldwide. Many of them plan to celebrate the occasion as part of the official Global Confucius Institute Day (Hanban, undated). After establishing themselves at universities, Confucius Institutes (CIs) have also begun to branch out beyond higher education. Confucius Classrooms, a network of over 1,100 affiliated programs at surrounding K-12 schools, is the most obvious such example.

But another aspect of this expanded outreach has largely gone unnoticed. Over the past decade, CIs have increasingly tried to establish ties with the corporate sector, offering various services to foreign businesses and more recently, working with a select group of Chinese companies on joint initiatives to be implemented at CIs globally. This phenomenon takes various forms and appears set to intensify based on a new partnership program launched in December 2018. Although seemingly innocuous and even beneficial to some businesses and their employees, these interactions present a new set of risks and challenges for governments, educators, parents and others concerned about the potential negative consequences of growing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in their schools, economies, and political systems.

Confucius Institute Services to Local Businesses, Multinationals

The websites and newsletters of numerous CIs across the United States and elsewhere around the world advertise various services offered to local businesses or multinationals with headquarters nearby. The most common services provided include language and cross-cultural communications classes and translation assistance. But some also involve more substantive courses about contemporary China. For example, the University of Oklahoma’s CI offers an introductory class to employees of local businesses that is “designed to provide students with a background understanding of China today” and includes content “about the current political landscape in China” and “how the Chinese economy works”—topics in which CI’s pro-Beijing bias is almost certain to manifest itself (University of Oklahoma, undated).

Two CIs in the northwestern United States have been pioneers for this type of outreach. Chinese language courses offered by the CI at Portland State University (CIPSU) in Oregon for employees at Nike’s headquarters in 2014 is one of the first examples of such efforts (Hanban, February 26, 2014). A 2012 journal article describes similar efforts by the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington (CIWA) to collaborate with local businesses, stating “We are excitedly preparing Business Chinese, Legal Chinese, and Intercultural Communication courses for Starbucks and Microsoft employees.” [1]

Since those initial experiments, similar engagement with businesses has expanded to CIs across the United States and beyond, in locations ranging from Nebraska (University of Nebraska-Lincoln Confucius Institute, undated) to Arkansas (University of Central Arkansas, June 2018), Miami (Miami Dade College Confucius Institute, undated) to Minneapolis (University of Minnesota, undated), as well as in the United Kingdom (University of Sheffield, undated) and Australia (University of Western Australia, undated). Many CI websites house specific pages and programs advertising these services. In several instances, university proposals for the establishment of new CIs (University of North Carolina-Charlotte, October 12, 2017) or general descriptions of the institute (Georgia State University, undated) cite building connections to local businesses as a key aspect of the center’s mission.

Corporate Involvement in Managing and Financially Supporting Confucius Institutes

In addition to CIs providing services to local businesses, corporate executives and businesses have taken on roles that support the management and financial viability of the institutes, such as serving on CI boards of directors. For example, Shen Yushi, who headed Microsoft’s Chinese Employee Network, served on the board of CIWA in 2012-2013 (Microsoft CHIME, undated); and former Nike Vice President and General Counsel Jim Carter served on the board of Portland State University’s CI prior to his retirement in 2010 (Portland State University, 2010). More recently, since 2014, Donald Fan, a senior director in Walmart’s Global Office of Culture, Diversity, and Inclusion, has served on the board of the CI at the University of Central Arkansas (Diversity MBA Magazine, undated).

Although CIs are primarily funded by the Chinese government, multinational corporations have also provided sponsorship or financial assistance towards the establishment of a CI. In a recent example from Germany, Audi helped jointly found a CI in the city of Ingolstadt, which was accordingly named the “Audi-Ingolstadt Confucius Institute.” According to Chinese media reports, this is the first institute in the world to be established with co-investment from a foreign multinational (China Daily, May 24, 2017). Major Chinese companies have also financially supported CIs abroad, such as a three-year 2012 sponsorship that tech giant Huawei provided to the Copenhagen CI in Denmark (Hanban, March 19, 2012).

These examples are not accidental. The Chinese Ministry of Education’s 2012-2020 “Confucius Institute Development Plan” specifically calls for local CIs to “actively expand funding channels, encourage and attract enterprises, individuals and other social forces at home and abroad to provide financial support to the Confucius Institute.” The plan also states that “’Going Out’ [Chinese] enterprises should actively support the construction of Confucius Institutes” (Ministry of Education, February 28, 2013).

New Confucius Institute Partnerships with a Wide Range of Chinese Companies

In parallel to CIs expanding their engagement with foreign businesses and building upon past support from Chinese firms like Huawei, over the last two years, there have appeared new initiatives by Hanban to support and partner with Chinese companies operating abroad. In one March 2018 example that offers parallels to the services provided to foreign companies, the CI at Egypt’s Suez Canal University provided a two-day language and cultural training program for Egyptian and Chinese employees of the Chinese fiberglass firm Jushi. The institute’s director Hassan Ragab told the China Daily that, “We will continue providing such training programs for about 20 Chinese companies operating in the SC Zone [the Suez Canal Economic Zone]” (China Daily, March 3, 2018).

In December 2018, Hanban announced a more expansive—and potentially problematic—partnership program with 17 Chinese companies (Sichuan Online, December 5, 2018). The program was unveiled at the annual CI conference held in Sichuan Province and launched in the presence of Sun Chunlan, a CCP Politburo member and former head of the party’s United Front Work Department (Hanban, December 7, 2018). Various Chinese government and media websites provide the names of many of the partner companies and certain parameters of collaboration. The firms are a diverse collection of state-owned and private enterprises operating across the publication, education, construction, communications, and technology sectors. [2]

The Implications of Corporate Partnerships with Confucius Institutes

There are obvious benefits to businesses and their employees having an opportunity to learn Chinese language skills and to improve their understanding of China, as well as receiving free or low-cost translation services. But the fact that these services and educational opportunities are provided by institutions subsidized by the Chinese government creates the risk of potential hidden strings being attached. The curriculum used by Hanban-vetted instructors, particularly on topics like contemporary China’s political and economic landscape, is likely to be highly selective: omitting any serious criticism of Xi Jinping’s concentration of political power, increased state censorship and surveillance, or the array of severe human rights violations being committed against lawyers, labor activists, Uighurs, Tibetans, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, and other Chinese citizens (National Association of Scholars, July 12, 2017). All these aspects of today’s China have concrete consequences for businesses operating in the country.

More broadly, research on the influence of CIs on university campuses has demonstrated that the centers’ presence and pro-Beijing perspective often reaches far beyond the classroom. The funding sources from Hanban, and related Chinese government ties developed with universities, have been used to directly or indirectly pressure administrators and faculty into avoiding certain forms of expression, activities, and interactions with actors frowned upon by Beijing. [3] The business community has traditionally advocated for close ties between foreign governments and China and has not generally concerned itself with standards like academic freedom. Still, increased Chinese government funding benefiting businesses abroad could very easily be leveraged by the CCP for future influence over foreign government policymaking, or corporations’ own wording choices related to politically sensitive topics and locations. The website of the University of Sheffield’s institute states that one of its aims is to “forge strategic alliances with key stakeholders in business, industry, government and other sectors,” noting that the goal is to support the institute (University of Sheffield, undated). Once established, such alliances can also be deployed towards achieving other CCP foreign policy goals.

However, perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of CI’s increased engagement with both foreign and Chinese firms relates to the opportunities created for intelligence gathering for political or economic purposes. This is especially relevant in the context of the new partnership program mentioned above. Several of the companies involved—particularly Tencent’s cloud computing subsidiary, iFlytek, and TAL—and the proposed nature of the collaboration envisioned with CIs should raise red flags.

In Tencent’s case, the envisioned cooperation appears to include the use of artificial intelligence technology to improve Chinese-language teaching. Part of this endeavor would incorporate measures like collecting foreign students’ data on Tencent-run communications platforms in order to provide them with news stories on their preferred topics (The Cover News, December 5, 2018). The CI collaboration with TAL is described in one document to include “using facial recognition and speech synthesis to provide an interactive learning experience to students” (People’s Daily, January 18, 2019). Such collaboration is not entirely new, as tech giant ZTE has reportedly supplied CIs around the world with equipment and training, and also co-founded the CI at France’s University of Poitier in 2005 (Daily Beast, June 27, 2018). But the new partnership program would expand the opportunity to a wider array of Chinese companies, including tech giant Tencent.

The services of Tencent—particularly its cloud computing services, and its popular mobile phone applications—have become ubiquitous elements of China’s communications, financial, and social fabric. While the company has been forced since its 1998 inception to comply with strict CCP information controls, over the past two years the scale and significance of this activity has increased and become more visible both inside and outside China (The Diplomat, March 26, 2019). Several recent data leaks, media investigations, and anecdotal accounts by users outside China have exposed a notable degree of transnational censorship and surveillance activity by the Tencent-owned social media platform WeChat. Taking into consideration Tencent’s complicity with Chinese government monitoring demands, some universities have already recommended that their students not use applications like WeChat when in China, and foreign militaries have told soldiers to remove them from their phones. The apparent plan to incorporate Tencent platforms into instruction at CIs brings those concerns closer to home.  iFlytek, another one of the new CI partner firms, also has a problematic background, with reported connections to state surveillance, biometric data collection, and repression in Xinjiang (Human Rights Watch, October 22, 2017).

Looking Ahead

In February 2019, China’s Ministry of Education published a White Paper on the government’s education-related goals and priorities through the year 2035 (Xinhua, February 23, 2019). One of the aims cited involves enhancing international educational cooperation, including promoting “the development of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms.” Another goal relates to reforming education in the “information age,” and includes efforts to “accelerate the formation of a modern education management and monitoring system.” These assertions, alongside the activities described above, indicate that this dimension of CIs’ operations—including the technological components—will likely continue expanding in the coming years.

Foreign governments, universities, and corporations should consider taking steps to limit potentially negative consequences that could emerge from this trend. Universities should be vigilant about excluding Tencent, ZTE, Flytech or similar Chinese firms’ technology from classrooms. Corporations should limit financial dependence on CIs, be mindful of any attempt by Chinese government representatives to use this avenue of engagement for illicit influence, and be prepared to report to the relevant authorities any activities that might indicate an effort at intelligence gathering or intellectual property theft. Multinationals should also consider other (and more independent) avenues for supporting Chinese-language learning in their communities, rather than providing funding and support to CIs. Employees and businesses that attend CI-run courses on Chinese politics or travel orientations should actively supplement the curriculum with independent sources of information about China, and meetings with outside human rights groups or local Chinese, Tibetan, and Uighur refugees. If not already in place, foreign ministries of education should develop channels for communication and consultation with their commerce-related counterparts and domestic intelligence agencies to facilitate sharing of information and coordinated responses to any problematic activities by Chinese or local companies at CIs.

Indeed, although collaboration with Chinese tech giants may provide benefits to CIs, in certain localities—and particularly in the United States—the latest initiative could backfire. It risks reinforcing or accelerating a recent trend of at least 22 American universities choosing to close their CIs because of concerns over not only academic freedom but also potential Chinese government surveillance.

Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin. Flora Yan studies political science and communications at the University of Washington, where she has been conducting research on Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms.



[1] Bo D., “The Confucius Institute of the State of Washington: An Introduction,” Comparative Literature: East and West, 17:1, 179-182, 2012; Published online August 6, 2018.

[2] The list of Chinese partners identified by the authors as participating in the new partnership program are as follows: 1. Sichuan Xinhua Publication Group (四川新华发行集团); 2. China Education Equipment Industry Association (中国教育装备行业协会); 3. China Nonferrous Metal Industry Human Resource Center – CNMIHR (有色金属工业人才中心); 4. China Communications Construction Company Ltd. (中国交通建设股份有限公司); 5. China International Intellectech Corporation – CIIC (中国国际技术智力合作公司); 6. Tencent Cloud Computing (Beijing) Inc. (腾讯云计算(北京)有限责任公司); 7. iFlytek Co. Ltd. (科大讯飞股份有限公司); 8. Beijing Duodou Technology Co. Ltd. (北京多豆科技有限公司), 9. TAL Education (好未来教育集团), 10. Lishizhen Medicine Group Co., Ltd. (李时珍医药集团); 11. Sichuan Changhong Education Technology (四川长虹教育科技有限公司); 12. China National Publications Import & Export Group Corporation (中国图书进出口总公司); 13. Beijing Perfect World Co., Ltd. (完美世界教育科技(北京)有限公司); 14. Beijing Wenxiang Information Technology Co., Ltd. (北京文香信息技术有限公司); 15. China Publishing Group Co., Ltd. (中国出版集团). The remaining two of the 17 partners are not companies but rather government agencies: Sichuan Province Department of Culture and Tourism (四川省文化和旅游厅) and Henan Province Department of Culture and Tourism (河南省文化和旅游厅). For the original Chinese article with the same list, see 李寰, & 李媛莉. (December 5, 2018). 孔子学院多了”好伙伴” 国内17家企事业单位加入孔子学院合作伙伴计划. Retrieved from

[3] Peterson, R. Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, April 26, 2017. Retrieved from