Get China's Pernicious Confucius Institutes Out of US colleges

Rachelle Peterson

FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed last week that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers teach a whitewashed version of China and serve as outposts of China’s overseas intelligence network.  

Wray was responding to questions from Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who called Confucius Institutes “complicit” in China’s larger efforts “to covertly influence public opinion.” Earlier this month, Rubio sent a letter to Florida schools, urging them to shut down their Confucius Institutes.

I spent a year and a half studying Confucius Institutes. I found they misled students about China’s history and pressured American scholars to keep quiet about China’s unsavory policies. The Chinese director of one Institute told me that if a student asked about Tiananmen Square, she would “show a picture and point out the beautiful architecture.” Another stripped faculty doors of banners referencing Taiwan.

Colleges and universities should close their Confucius Institutes voluntarily — as the University of West Florida announced it would do in response to Rubio’s letter.

In the meantime, the U.S. government should take action. Here are some first steps.

First, make colleges choose between China’s gifts and federal funding.

American colleges accept China’s money to teach Chinese language and culture. But the federal government already awards grants for the same purpose. (See Title VI of the Higher Education Act.) When a college receives Confucius Institute funding, its eligibility for federal Chinese-language grants should decrease proportionately.

Second, require financial transparency.

The public should know how much money foreign governments pour into colleges and universities. The Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities to disclose gifts from a foreign entity totaling $250,000 or more in a calendar year. That threshold should be lowered to $50,000 — about the cost of hiring a full-time instructor at a four-year public university — and it should include the fair market value of in-kind gifts. China sends free textbooks and pays the Chinese teachers at Confucius Institutes, plus funds international trips for college administrators. Under current law, these in-kind gifts never get disclosed. That needs to change.

The Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization, giving legislators a key opportunity to enact stronger disclosure requirements. But House Republicans, in a burst of deregulatory zeal, have introduced the PROSPER Act, which would repeal these disclosure requirements entirely. (The PROSPER Act requires slightly stronger disclosure for institutions that receive Title VI foreign studies funding, but every other college and university would be exempt from disclosing any foreign gifts at all.)  

In general, deregulation is good — but so is national security and academic integrity. Congress must amend the PROSPER Act to restore and strengthen disclosure requirements for foreign gifts.  

Third, enforce existing law.

Of the 103 Confucius Institutes in the U.S., my research found that only 16 have reported Confucius Institute gifts to the Department of Education since 2010. The Justice Department has authority to investigate and sue institutions that fail to disclose these gifts properly. It should do so at once.

Fourth, require China to be upfront about its goals.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires agents of foreign governments or foreign political parties to identify themselves and disclose certain information to the Justice Department, which maintains a public database of such agents. Confucius Institutes and their Chinese government sponsor, the Hanban, are exempt from FARA under a provision that excludes persons or groups that “engage only in activities in furtherance of bona fide religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits.”

Confucius Institutes are propaganda machines masked as educational endeavors. The Justice Department should investigate Confucius Institutes for potential violation of FARA. Congress should amend FARA to specify what “bona fide” academic pursuits means, making it clear that foreign propaganda shrouded in an educational institute is not exempt.

Fifth, enforce antidiscrimination law.

Confucius Institutes regularly engage in discriminatory hiring practices. The American university typically agrees to hire Confucius Institute staff from a pool of candidates vetted and selected by the Chinese government, which routinely discriminates by politics and religion. In 2012, one Confucius Institute in Canada closed after a teacher filed a human rights complaint documenting the discrimination she faced for practicing Falun Gong, which is banned in China.

The Confucius Institute hiring process is also non-competitive. China requires that Confucius Institute teachers must “have Chinese nationality.” Qualified Americans are not eligible to apply. The Justice Department should investigate and, if proper, pursue legal action against American colleges complicit in discrimination.

Sixth, hold more hearings.

Confucius Institutes have the potential to threaten national security, as FBI Director Wray acknowledged. They gag American scholars who are critics of China. They are likely a tool for China to monitor, intimidate, and harass Chinese students studying in America. Representative Chris Smith held such hearings in 2014 and asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate Confucius Institutes, but this issue bears further scrutiny.

Confucius Institutes are an affront to intellectual freedom, national security, and American interests. It is time for them to close, and it is time for the U.S. to act.

Crossposted from The Hill.

Image Credit: Public Domain

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