Senate Takes Aim at Confucius Institutes

John David

CounterCurrent: Week of 6/28


Over the past three years, American politicians and higher education leaders have become increasingly aware of the threat Confucius Institutes (CIs) pose to academic freedom and national security in our colleges and universities. This is partially attributable to the National Association of Scholars’ 2017 report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education. In it, NAS Policy Director Rachelle Peterson takes a deep dive into the operations of 12 CIs in New York and New Jersey, exposing their bent toward revisionist history and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. 

Hanban, the CCP agency overseeing Confucius Institutes, currently holds a remarkable level of control over the institutes’ curricula and faculty. Consequently, CIs function more as propaganda outlets and less as the “linguistic and cultural centers” they purport to be. CIs routinely sweep Chinese political history and human rights abuses under the rug; they speak of Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China; they frequently recruit card-carrying members of the CCP to instruct courses; and, as Peterson puts it, they teach “a generation of American students to know nothing more of China than the regime’s official history.” As of now, the Hanban simply has to throw large sums of money at college and university administrations to coerce compliance.

Past efforts to reign in Confucius Institutes through federal legislation have not been terribly successful. For example, two years ago Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced the “Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2018” (SHEET). The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, but the Senate took no further action. Other Senators such as Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have taken action against CIs, the results of which are still pending.

Meanwhile, the Senate has passed a new, bipartisan bill on its way to the House: the CONFUCIUS Act (Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States Act). The bill was introduced by Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) and is cosponsored by Senators Doug Jones (D-AL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). In this week’s featured statement, NAS breaks down the key provisions of the bill, applauds these Senators for their fine work, and proposes amendments to the bill. 

If passed in the House and signed into law, the CONFUCIUS Act would withhold Department of Education grants from colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes unless and until they include “clear provisions” in Hanban contracts that protect academic freedom and turn control of CI hiring and curricula over to the institutions themselves, not China.

These changes would certainly aid in raising the dismal level of transparency within Confucius Institutes today. The Act would also help ensure that students receive an honest education on Chinese history and culture. But the current state of CIs is proof of how slippery the Hanban already is—realistically, what’s to stop the agency from finding a way around any regulations put forward? Indeed, to quote our statement:

We are concerned that the Hanban will engage in legalistic gymnastics to put forward policies that technically hand control back to colleges and universities, while simultaneously setting up funding arrangements and other incentives that effectively force colleges and universities to respect Hanban preferences. ...

Many current contracts include outlandish requirements, such as demanding adherence to Chinese law, that would never hold up in U.S. court if challenged. Their purpose is not really to require colleges and universities to abide by these principles. They have a much more basic purpose: to indicate to colleges and universities what they must do if they wish to maintain favor with the Chinese government.

To truly nip Confucius Institutes in the bud, the federal government must withhold funds from any institution which hosts one. American colleges and universities are capable of providing Chinese language and culture instruction by their own means—many already do. Nevertheless, the CONFUCIUS Act is a great start, and NAS commends Senators Kennedy, Jones, Grassley, and Blackburn for their efforts in protecting our colleges and universities from China’s insidious influence. Let’s see if the House responds in kind.


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

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