The obituary for Elliot Sperling begins as most do, noting the peaks of the man’s life: 66 years of vitality, a MacArthur (genius) Fellowship, and a reshaping of our understanding of Sino-Tibetan relations. Of particular note, the obituary’s author Tenzin Dorjee, writes:
Through his seminal writings on Tibet’s relations with China during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, he became arguably the first historian to extensively use both Chinese and Tibetan sources to bring to light the separation and independence that characterized the relationship between the two nations. Until he came along, Western academics viewed Tibet only through Chinese eyes, largely because they could not access Tibetan sources; Elliot, who was fluent in Tibetan as well as Chinese, upended the old Sino-centric narrative and literally transformed the field overnight.
Sperling’s academic bona fides are indeed strong. A quick search finds him cited and discussed in the likes of Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West and Paul Williams’ great work, Mahayana Buddhism, and cited thrice in Robert Buzwell’s 2004 Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Some of his own work includes an introduction to Tibet Since 1950: Silence, Prison, or Exile and The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics.
He was also a thoughtful and vocal activist on behalf of the Tibetan people and for human rights in general. However, he was no mere devotee of Tibetan powers. In a recent (2014) article for info-Buddhism, he summed up his position on contemporary Tibetan politics as “Self Delusion.” There, after a thorough recounting of recent decades of political discourse between Tibet (in exile) and China, Sperling concludes that “The exile establishment has calcified into an entity that exists for the sole purpose of perpetuating itself.”
Nonetheless, Dorjee writes in his obituary of a conversation with Sperling:
Just before he left for Vienna as a visiting professor last fall, he said to me in his characteristic urgency, “Let’s meet up and discuss strategies. We need to escalate the fight against the Confucius Institutes.”
This was the line that most caught my attention. I recall numerous articles on the (in)famous Confucius Institutes in recent years, but nothing in the last 18 months or so.
As reported in Foreign Policy in July 2014, China has sponsored at least 70 Confucius Institutes (Inside Higher Ed reported that there were around 90) in the US, state-run institutions suspected of having a “state-dictated taboo on sensitive topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen, infringe upon academic freedom at U.S. universities…”
Anyone familiar with US higher education will likely cringe at the first response, from my own alma mater’s Stephen Levine:
A confession: In 2007, without having given the matter sufficient thought, I myself, then an associate director of the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, shared responsibility for a successful application to the Hanban, the organization that partners with China’s Ministry of Education to oversee CIs, to establish a CI at my university, a typically underfunded state university with a woefully inadequate Asian studies program. Our institutional poverty rather than our greed motivated us. We pledged to ourselves to brook no interference from Beijing in what we did.
Others, however, write more favorably of the relationships between their universities and the Confucius Institutes (CIs). ChinaFile also hosted a 2014 discussion of the CIs with leading scholars.
In 2015 the Diplomat reported that three major universities, the University of Chicago, Penn State, and Stockholm University had shut down their CIs, Penn State citing a lack of “transparency and academic freedom.”
But there the discussion goes quiet.
One must wonder about the place of these Chinese institutes in U.S. universities in the current political climate. What worries did Elliot Sperling have in the fall of 2016, specifically singling them out as in need of escalated fight?
Read more on remembering Elliot Sperling at China Change.org.