Confucius Institutes Get a Makeover

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 3/21


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is rebranding Confucius Institutes (CIs), an evasive ploy meant to avoid the public eye and continue exerting its soft power on American campuses. This combined with the Biden Administration’s tepid approach to U.S.-China relations, as epitomized by last week’s Alaska conference, does not bode well for the future of foreign influence in American education.

CIs are, ostensibly, Chinese language and culture centers hosted by universities outside of the People’s Republic of China. Just five years ago, there were over 100 CIs in the United States alone. However, the National Association of Scholars discovered through our ground-breaking research that CIs and their K-12 counterpart, Confucius Classrooms, actually operate as CCP propaganda and espionage spokes. Further, we found that the CCP has deep, years-long ties to the College Board, partnering with the organization in developing the Advanced Placement Chinese Language and Culture course and examination. It is clear that the Chinese government is deeply embedded in all levels of American education, a position it will not give up easily.

Meanwhile, American opposition to Confucius Institutes continues to gain traction, with more anti-CI bills introduced and more CIs closing—according to our count, 72 CIs have closed or have announced their closure. While NAS does recommend that CIs close, we recognize that this is not always a win. In other words, some CIs close, while others “close.” Here’s what I mean:

Some Confucius Institutes simply close. The Institute ceases operations and its staff finds work elsewhere. Done and done. But, as we’re currently learning, many CIs pretend to close, only to resume operations under a different name, often retaining at least some of the same personnel and curricula. In these cases, the CIs have indeed closed, but the problem remains. This is why we must focus on curbing CCP influence in all of its forms, rather than merely latch onto the name “Confucius Institute” in our efforts.

In this week’s featured article, Yuichiro Kakutani of the Washington Free Beacon examines the different moves the CCP has made to hide its malign influence on American campuses and considers why our institutions play along. He writes, 

The persistence of the Confucius Institute in the U.S. education system speaks to how difficult it is to convince American schools to sever ties with Chinese entities. Hanban, the Chinese Ministry of Education-backed group that runs the Confucius Institute, has spent more than $100 million to support the institutes in U.S. universities. Many universities fear that ending ties with the Confucius Institute will cause funding shortfalls and program cuts.

Is fully expunging CCP influence from American campuses worth potential “funding shortfalls and program cuts”? We think so. And besides, U.S. institutions are capable of funding and staffing their own Chinese language departments—countless do so already.

In response to the CCP’s constant obfuscation, NAS is proud to announce “When Confucius Institutes Close,” a new project that will investigate this very problem and will seek to get to the bottom of Chinese government influence in American higher education. What exactly happens when CIs close? How many CIs have faked their closures? What are the CCP’s strategies for avoiding public scrutiny, and how can we counter them? These and more are the questions that will be answered through this project, led by NAS Senior Research Fellow Rachelle Peterson and our newest hire, Research Associate Flora Yan. Stay tuned for more details as we continue to untangle the seemingly endless web of CCP influence in American education.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Sardaka, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, cropped.

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