Criticizing Confucius Institutes

National Association of Scholars

Three recent reports on Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes reiterate the concerns NAS has raised for the last two years: Confucius Institutes compromise academic freedom, defy Western norms of transparency, and are inappropriate on college campuses. NAS continues to call on all universities to close their Confucius Institutes.

This week the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a 92-page report blasting Confucius Institutes as “part of China’s broader, long-term strategy” to develop “soft power” that “encourages complacency” in the face of China’s increasingly illiberal and aggressive policies.  The report concludes that “Absent full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for U.S. cultural outreach efforts on college campuses in China, Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States.”

The Senate Subcommittee report, China’s Impact on the U.S. Education System, cites NAS’s 2017 report Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education. Subcommittee researchers consulted with NAS policy director Rachelle Peterson before and during their research, and NAS’s research is cited throughout as the “Peterson Report.”

The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also held a hearing on Confucius Institutes, featuring officials from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of State, and the Department of Education. There, Senator Rob Portman echoed concerns NAS has raised about the failure of the Department of Education to enforce federal laws requiring disclosure of foreign gifts, such as those from Confucius Institutes. NAS has called for the Higher Education Act to be amended to lower the threshold for disclosing gifts, clarify that gifts to university foundations are also subject to disclosure, and require more specificity about the foreign donor and the purpose of the gift.

The Senate Subcommittee report, China’s Impact, lays out substantial new evidence about Confucius Institutes, including reviews of tens of thousands of pages of internal documents, interviews with Confucius Institute and university officials, and analyses of the financial contributions the Chinese government provided to American campuses. The report finds that China contributed $158 million to American-based Confucius Institutes—yet nearly 70% of recipient colleges and universities failed to report that money to the Department of Education, as required by law.

Senate Subcommittee researchers also accessed a copy of the contract that the Chinese government asks Confucius Institute teachers to sign, showing that Chinese nationals seeking to teach at a Confucius Institute must first pledge to “conscientiously safeguard national interests” and obey all Chinese laws, even while living in the U.S.

The report goes on to document how “Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom.” It describes Confucius Institutes as an “attempt to export China’s censorship of political debate and prevent discussion of potentially politically sensitive topics.”

A second report on Confucius Institutes came out this week, this one from the Government Accountability Office, featuring a review of 90 memoranda of understanding that American colleges and universities signed with the Chinese government in order to operate Confucius Institutes. NAS worked with the GAO to develop research questions.

The GAO report finds that although Confucius Institute agreements varied by school, most were kept confidential, and two-thirds explicitly required adherence to the Confucius Institute Constitution and Bylaws, which itself required adherence to Chinese law.

The GAO report is much more limited in scope than the Senate Subcommittee Report, and is somewhat more optimistic about the place of Confucius Institutes on campus. It focuses exclusively on the language in the Confucius Institute agreements, regardless of whether colleges face other non-contractual pressures to behave in a manner consistent with Chinese censors. The report also takes at face-value the declarations by college administrators that their Confucius Institutes have never suffered from any of the problems alleged by FBI Director Christopher Wray, Members of Congress, and organizations such as NAS.

For instance, the GAO reports that although the Chinese government tightly controls the applicant pool for Confucius Institute teaching positions, leaving universities to select from a slate of applicants proposed by China, colleges and universities were content with this arrangement. Most officials the GAO interviewed “believed their school generally controlled the hiring process and were thus satisfied with it.”

College administrators may “control” the final selection, but if China screens all candidates according to religious or political litmus tests, then U.S. institutions have ceded all power to ensure their teachers have a fair selection process and are given meaningful academic freedom. This is especially worrisome given—as  we now know from the Senate Subcommittee report—that China requires all Confucius Institute teachers to “safeguard national interests” and obey all Chinese law when determining what they can and cannot say in class.

The third report comes from the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.  The Commission invited NAS Policy Director Rachelle Peterson to submit written testimony, and she is quoted throughout the Commission’s report.

The Commission’s 19-page report expresses alarm that Confucius Institutes, unlike their Western counterparts, “are embedded within universities,” where they can freeride on the university’s prestige and credibility. The Commission also raises concern that Confucius Institutes may function as “an arm of Chinese ‘soft power’ and propaganda, aimed at promoting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s propaganda and stifling its critics around the world.”

The Commission report closes with a number of recommendations, including legislation in Britain to require transparency of foreign gifts to colleges and universities, a suspension of new agreements to start Confucius Institutes until further research, an investigation into whether the Confucius Institute hiring process violates Britain’s Equality Act 2010, and a review of all visas for Confucius Institute teachers.

The National Association of Scholars welcomes these reports on Confucius Institutes. We are pleased to see the trail that we blazed has now been expanded and improved by this further research. We particularly thank Senator Rob Portman and Senator Tom Carper for devoting such effort to the Senate Subcommittee’s report on Confucius Institutes, and to Senator Portman for asking some of the key legislative questions, particularly surrounding transparency and accountability.

NAS continues to call on all universities to close their Confucius Institutes. We publish a list of every Confucius Institute in the country, along with the contact information for their presidents—and a template letter you can send to a college president, expressing concern about Confucius Institutes.

We urge lawmakers to strengthen existing transparency laws, ban all federal funding to Confucius Institutes, and continue to investigate China’s use of educational programs as a façade for its soft power campaign. 

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