China is Rebranding Its Confucius Institutes

Rachelle Peterson

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by RealClearEducation on July 22, 2020 and is posted here with permission.


China’s Confucius Institutes—once a powerful tool of soft power—are rebranding in the wake of widespread backlash. China launched the institutes in 2004 as partnerships with colleges and universities, which would host Chinese government-selected teachers who taught Chinese government-funded courses. Now, with more than 40 colleges and universities in the United States having closed their Confucius Institutes amidst warnings from the FBI, the State Department, and members of Congress, China is adapting its tactics, with major implications for how the United States should respond.

The Hanban, also known as the Confucius Institutes Headquarters, is renaming itself the Ministry of Education Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation. According to China’s Global Times, it will continue to train Chinese language teachers, develop textbooks, and carry out many of the functions necessary for the operation of Confucius Institutes. The Hanban will spin off a separate organization, the Chinese International Education Foundation, which will fund and officially oversee Confucius Institutes.

The immediate result of the change is minimal. The new organization overseeing Confucius Institutes is technically a nongovernmental nonprofit, but those words mean little under the Chinese Communist regime. Confucius Institutes will remain subject to the same restrictions and pressures to conform to Chinese government dictates. They will continue to fulfill the Chinese government’s goals of maintaining outposts on American college campuses, where they can disseminate propaganda, conduct espionage, monitor overseas Chinese students, and advance the United Front’s agenda to “make the foreign serve China.”

But in the long term, the change will require a significantly more nuanced approach from policymakers. The Hanban says it won’t require individual colleges to change the names of their Confucius Institutes, but with the “Confucius Institute” brand now a red flag to millions of Americans, most colleges will likely seize this opportunity to rebrand. Some will surely announce they are “closing” their Confucius Institutes, while simultaneously transferring the bulk of their operations to a new but substantially similar China-funded institute.

This all means the work of Confucius Institutes will continue unchanged, but under a variety of different names, making it harder to track and regulate. The CONFUCIUS Act, which just passed the Senate and is now under consideration by the House, will have to be amended to capture organizations that are, in effect, Confucius Institutes in all but name. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which banned Pentagon grants to Chinese language programs at universities that also hosted Confucius Institutes, will need to be amended. So will the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act, introduced this spring in the Senate, as well as any other legislation aimed at Confucius Institutes.

It will be tempting to begin a game of political whack-a-mole, cracking down first on Confucius Institutes and then whatever subsequent reincarnations in which they manifest. But it is wiser to recognize that China has mastered the art of camouflage. Its entire government operates through a policy of doublespeak. It will endlessly mask Confucius Institute-like programs under a variety of names and labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy. We should continue to track and expose the specific means of China’s interference in American higher education. But we simultaneously protect American higher education with a much more aggressive policy on China.

First, we need a vastly more sophisticated policy of transparency from higher education. Current law requires colleges to disclose gifts and contracts with foreign sources in excess of $250,000 per year. That threshold is far too low—$50,000 should be the minimum. Gifts from certain nations, including China, should be subject to disclosure with no threshold whatsoever.

We also need basic information about the source of foreign gifts. The Department of Education recently released updated guidance asking colleges and universities to report the name of foreign government agencies that donate to colleges and universities, but private foundations and individuals remain anonymous. Once the newly created Chinese International Education Foundation—technically a nonprofit—issues its first funding to Confucius Institutes, it will instantly enjoy anonymity as a foreign donor. Our colleges and universities will be required to report little more than the dollar amount and country of origin.

Second, any college or university that reports $200,000 or more in gifts or contracts stemming from China should be automatically subject to a review by the Department of Education. The Department should demand detailed information, including copies of contracts and memoranda of understanding, regarding any partnerships funded by foundations in China.

Third, we should strongly disincentivize colleges and universities from taking money from China and any other nation that seeks to manipulate our colleges as platforms for soft power. Any college or university that receives $250,000 or more from China, considered in aggregate across all donors and contractors, should face a significant decrease in its eligibility for federal funding. For every fifty thousand dollars above that amount in Chinese donations or contracts, the university should be subject to a ten percent decrease in federal funding, excluding federal student aid. Any university that receives half a million dollars or more from any source in China (governmental or private) in one calendar year should be ineligible to receive non-student-aid federal funding for five years.

China is playing the long game, especially when it comes to education. We need to protect our colleges and universities—before it’s too late.


Rachelle Peterson is Policy Director at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Erika Wittlieb, Public Domain

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