The University of Chicago recently dealt a blow to the Chinese government’s aggressive efforts to spread overseas propaganda by refusing to renew its Confucius Institute on campus. Subsequently, Penn State announced it was following suit.

Confucius Institutes parade as academic programs for the teaching of Chinese culture and language and are offered globally to universities and colleges with all costs covered by Hanban, an affiliate of the Chinese Ministry of Public Education. But in reality,  Confucius Institutes are the flagships of Chinese propaganda, part of “Chinese public opinion warfare,” as it has been described by Heritage scholar Dean Cheng.

Even though Confucius Institutes have been around only since 2004 (modeled to an extent on the German Goethe-Institut, British Council and Alliance Francaise) there are today an estimated 1,100 in 120 countries, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Last year, China spent an estimated $275 million on funding them.

In the United States, they are found in academic institutions across the land from Stanford to the University of Maryland, which is home to the first Confucius Institute in the U.S.

The fight against the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago was led by emeritus professor Marshall Sahlins, who last year wrote a seminal article, “China U.” in The Nation magazine. It detailed the insidious influence of the Chinese on campus and the threat the Confucius Institute presented to academic free inquiry.

More than 100 members of the University of Chicago faculty followed up with a petition stating that the university’s Confucius Institute “subjects the university’s academic program to the political constraints on free speech.” The article echoed concerns in Canada, Britain and other countries that China is implementing a political agenda hostile to, for example, discussion of Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, Falun Gong or visiting lectures by Chinese political dissidents. On Sept. 29, the Institute ceased its functions after five years on campus of the University of Chicago.

Within a week, Pennsylvania State University followed suit.  Susan Welch, dean of Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts, told Inside Higher Ed that Penn State’s Asian studies program and the Confucius Institute do not have “similar goals.” Penn State’s desire to broaden the study of China beyond language and culture as well as plans to fold the institute into its Asian Studies department were resisted by Hanban.

Academic institutions who have accepted the Chinese money and presence have found themselves under pressure to conform to Beijing’s political demands. Concerns here in the United States have echoed concerns in Canada, Britain and other countries that China is implementing a political agenda hostile to free and open inquiry.

The actions of the University of Chicago and Penn State should encourage other U.S. academic institutions to sever their economic ties with the government in Beijing, which routinely imprisons professors and punishes academic free inquiry at home.