NDAA 2021 Plays Softball with Confucius Institutes

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 12/20

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021 is now in the president’s hands. This catch-all bill covers everything from missile defense systems to aircraft management regulations. Here you’re asking, “But David, what does this have to do with higher education?”

This year’s NDAA also includes new provisions pertaining to Confucius Institutes (CIs), the Chinese government-run “language and culture centers” that have, by the NAS and others, been shown to really serve as CCP propaganda and spying hubs on American college and university campuses.

Buried in the miscellaneous “Other Matters” section of the NDAA, the proposed restrictions on CIs read as follows:

An institution of higher education or other postsecondary educational institution (referred to in this section as an institution) shall not be eligible to receive Federal funds from the Department of Education (except funds under title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1070 et seq.) or other Department of Education funds that are provided directly to students) unless the institution ensures that any contract or agreement between the institution and a Confucius Institute includes clear provisions that—

1. protect academic freedom at the institution;

2. prohibit the application of any foreign law on any campus of the institution; and

3. grant full managerial authority of the Confucius Institute to the institution, including full control over what is being taught, the activities carried out, the research grants that are made, and who is employed at the Confucius Institute.

This is not the first time a defense spending bill has placed restrictions on Confucius Institutes. In the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2019, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced a key amendment stating that CI-provided Chinese language instruction may not be funded by NDAA monies. That was a good start and helped ensure that taxpayer dollars did not go directly toward CCP propaganda efforts, but it didn’t do much to affect CIs in and of themselves. The CCP has more than enough money to fully fund the Institutes on its own.

In this week’s featured article, Yuichiro Kakutani of The Washington Free Beacon explains how, while the NDAA’s CI restrictions are beneficial, they do not nearly go far enough and represent an emaciated form of the measures originally proposed. He writes,

The Senate's National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that authorized the Department of Education to withhold funding from U.S. universities that host Chinese government-backed Confucius Institutes on campus. House Democrats removed the measure from the final version of the bill following negotiations. Louisiana senator John Kennedy (R.), who helped write the anti-Confucius Institute measure, said Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) had "gutted" a key weapon to counter Chinese influence in academia. [emphasis added]

NAS’s own Rachelle Peterson is cited, saying “‘It's disappointing to see at least some lawmakers fall for the farce that Chinese government-backed Confucius Institutes are a risk to be managed, not eliminated,’ Peterson said. ‘Still, I'm glad to see that Confucius Institutes remain on lawmakers' minds.’”

The CCP has always found a way to sidestep Confucius Institute regulations, and as long as CIs are extant, they will continue to do so, within or without the bounds of the law. The only true and lasting solution is to ban Confucius Institutes outright, as one local legislator has already proposed. Anything short of this will simply tie existing CIs in more and more red tape, perhaps helping in the short-term but ultimately kicking lasting change down the road.


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

Image: Senate Democrats, Public Domain, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped

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