How Can State Legislatures Counter Chinese Influence in American Higher Education?

Wisconsin State Senate Testimony

Rachelle Peterson

Editor's Note: The following is written testimony by National Association of Scholars Senior Research Fellow Rachelle Peterson, which was read on October 19, 2021 before the Wisconsin State Senate. In her testimony, Peterson details the many ways in which the Chinese government continues to exert soft power within American higher education, including how it has moved away from Confucius Institutes and toward other, more covert avenues of influence. She also suggests several means by which state legislatures may begin to curb this threat.

Good afternoon. My thanks to Senator Roger Roth for inviting me, and to this committee for taking so seriously the issue of international security in institutions of higher education.

My name is Rachelle Peterson, and I am a senior research fellow at the National Association of Scholars. I’m honored to be with you today. My research focuses on Confucius Institutes, most recently how they are morphing into new and increasingly sophisticated tools of Chinese government influence on American college campuses.

Confucius Institutes, as you may know, are Chinese government-sponsored centers that began appearing on American college campuses in 2004. In recent years, as these Confucius Institutes have sparked controversy, most have closed down. However, many have been replaced with other, extremely similar programs under new names. Although it may seem that we won the battle against Confucius Institutes, in reality Chinese government influence campaigns are merely shifting to new tactics and new programs.

I want to make three points in my testimony before you today.

First, American higher education is a target for the Chinese government, as shown by its vast investment into Confucius Institutes.

Second, Chinese government influence campaigns are becoming more sophisticated, more complex, and harder to track.

Third, there are ways that state legislators can act.

First, American higher education is a target for the Chinese government. As a case study, let me tell you a bit about Confucius Institutes. One hundred eighteen American institutions have hosted a Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-funded campus center that teaches Chinese language and culture. These Confucius Institutes popped up at prestigious universities, like Columbia and Stanford, but also at small local institutions, like the Community College of Denver. Christian colleges, historically black colleges and universities, top-tier research universities, liberal arts colleges—the Chinese government seemed interested in planting Confucius Institutes wherever a willing partner would accept them.

There was one Confucius Institute in Wisconsin, at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, though it did close earlier this year, in May 2021. More on that later.

Ostensibly Confucius Institutes are benign goodwill gestures from the Chinese government, aimed at teaching Chinese language and culture. In fact, the Chinese government has sought to use these courses as a pretext for a more subversive political agenda. My 2017 report Outsourced to China examined this is greater detail.1

A Chinese government agency called the Hanban set up Confucius Institutes. Typically, the Hanban would provide up to 3,000 books, give $100,000 to $150,000 per year (though sometimes far more) and select and pay both the Chinese teachers and the Institute’s Chinese co-director. This structure, with the Chinese government choosing the teachers and sending textbooks, gives China an advantageous position. In addition, the Hanban typically also reserved to itself the right to sign off on any course material and public events, to evaluate the teachers, and to prohibit transgressions of Chinese law.

From time to time both the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party have admitted to using this leverage over Confucius Institutes for political purposes.

In 2009, Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, called Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”2 Two years later, he said, “The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”3

In 2010, Xu Lin, the Hanban director general, accepted one of the World’s Most Influential Chinese People award. In her acceptance speech she noted, “Confucius Institutes are an important part of our soft power. We want to expand China’s influence.”4

The rapid growth of Confucius Institutes between their launch in 2004 and their peak in the United States in 2015, when 109 Confucius Institutes operated in the US, indicates that the Chinese government enjoyed a good deal of success.

However, Confucius Institutes have begun shutting down across the country, giving at least the first impression that Chinese government influence is waning in the American higher education.

Although certainly the United States as a whole is more aware of Chinese government influence campaigns, and many measures have been taken to protect American colleges and universities, the Chinese government remains highly motivated to seek alternative avenues of influence. This is my second point: Chinese government influence campaigns are becoming more sophisticated, as shown in the case of Confucius Institutes.

Of the 118 Confucius Institutes that existed in the United States, 90 have shut down—76 percent of the total.5

In part, this may sound like a success story, an indication that a number of U.S. policies implemented in the last couple of years have worked. In just the last three years, the FBI announced it was probing potential espionage at Confucius Institutes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Confucius Institute U.S. Center a “foreign mission,” urged colleges to close their Confucius Institutes, and cracked down on visa fraud at Confucius Institutes. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, too, warned schools to beware Confucius Institutes. DeVos took another important step: for the first time since 1986, when Congress mandated that colleges report foreign gifts and contracts, DeVos enforced that law, leading to colleges and universities back-reporting some $6.5 billion in foreign funding. Those new disclosures showed money coming not only from Confucius Institutes, but also from Russian cybersecurity firms and Huawei and ZTE, Chinese tech firms declared by the FCC to be national security threats.

Congress, too, sprung into action. Senator Ted Cruz attached an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, barring certain Department of Defense grants to universities with Confucius Institutes.

A number of state legislatures, too, began investigating and considering bills to bar Confucius Institutes in their state.

And yet, concern about Chinese government overreach is almost never the reason colleges and universities give when they close their Confucius Institutes. Instead, they praise the Hanban, the Chinese government agency that runs Confucius Institutes, and decry federal policies that “forced” them to close programs they deem valuable and important.

My colleagues and I are now working on a research project called “When Confucius Institutes Close.” We’re tracking what really happens when a Confucius Institute closes—particularly whether it gets replaced by a similar program under a new name. My colleagues and I have filed more than 100 Freedom of Information Requests at 80 public colleges and universities, resulting in more than 2,000 pages of documents—including some from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

We’re still tallying the final numbers, but we do know that the single most popular reason colleges give for closing their Confucius Institute is that they are replacing it with some other partnership with China. In the majority of these cases, that new partnership is extremely similar to the old Confucius Institute. Sometimes it is even funded by the same Chinese government agency that runs Confucius Institutes.

There is no uniform name for this replacement program. Often it is called a Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation, a name that gives nod to the Chinese government agency Hanban, which also recently renamed itself the Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation. But other names circulate too, and it is clear that the Chinese government will not be so naïve as to replace Confucius Institutes with a single monolithic entity. The Chinese government’s new strategy involves flexibility, subterfuge, and above all a desire to deepen its influence in a less visible way. It increasingly prefers partnerships that operate behind the scenes. China’s participation is largely invisible unless you know exactly where to look or which FOIA requests to file.

For instance, our FOIA requests show that Georgia State University, the same month it closed its Confucius Institute, signed a new agreement with Beijing Language and Culture University, its partner in the Confucius Institute. The two are now operating the Chinese Language and Culture Program, whose programs closely duplicate those the Confucius Institute once ran.

Then there’s the College of William and Mary, which entered a “sister university” relationship with Beijing Normal University, its partner in its Confucius Institute. The new “sister university” agreement took effect on July 1, 2021, one day after the Confucius Institute closed on June 30.

Michigan State University, too, plans that “many of the institute’s programs will be transferred to other areas within the university,” though not under the name Confucius Institute. The university told us by email, "While the university is closing the institute, it is not closing its doors to continued engagement with China or the partnerships formed through the institute.”

The University of Michigan issued a press release announcing that it was not only closing its Confucius Institute, but also seeking to retain funding from the Hanban. James Holloway, vice provost for global engagement, said the university was “in communication with Hanban, exploring alternative ways to support the greater U-M community.”6 Federal disclosures show the university did in fact receive more than $300,000 from the Hanban in May and June 2019, just as the Confucius Institute was closing in June 2019. (An interesting side-note, though, is that under the Biden Administration, these disclosures have recently been scrubbed from the Department of Education’s website.)

Northern State University even went so far as to negotiate a new agreement with the Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation (the new name for Hanban, the Chinese government agency that started Confucius Institutes). The agreement took effect in 2020, a year after it closed its Confucius Institute. Under this new agreement, CLEC will “dispatch Chinese language teachers” and pay their salaries and living expenses, exactly as it did under the Confucius Institute.

At least four colleges and universities have recruited a new host for their Confucius Institute, such that the Confucius Institute has not really closed, but merely changed locations. The University of Washington transferred its Confucius Institute to Pacific Lutheran University. Western Kentucky University recruited the local Simpson County Public School District. Pfeiffer University and San Diego State University, too, found new partners to pick up their cast-off Confucius Institute.

In the midst of all these changes, the Chinese government has used a multi-faceted approach to guard its relationships with colleges and universities. Early on, it openly sought to persuade the American public that Confucius Institutes are innocuous. The Confucius Institute U.S. Center paid for fourteen national press releases between 2018 and 2020. In 2018 it broadcast on DirectTV and on YouTube a ten-episode TV series featuring presidents of American universities and corporations praising Confucius Institutes.7

The Chinese government also arranged for platforms for American defenders of Confucius Institutes. In 2018 the Confucius Institute U.S. Center booked the National Press Club in DC and arranged for university administrators to sing the praises of Confucius Institutes. Arizona State University’s Matt Salmon claimed the Confucius Institute was “a real blessing” co-funded by the Department of Defense (a claim that, as it turned out, was false—and also quickly resulted in legislation to bar collaboration between Department of Defense programs and Confucius Institutes).

At other times, the Chinese government has threatened the U.S. with hostility, as in July 2021, when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng delivered a list of “wrongdoings” it demanded the U.S. correct, including assaults on Confucius Institutes.8

For a time, Hanban sought to reassure its American partner universities of the value of a Confucius Institute, and to coach them in the art of defending their Confucius Institutes. Our Freedom of Information requests reveal that Hanban mailed to many American hosts of Confucius Institutes a 2019 letter rebutting “recent groundless criticism” and seeking suggestions “on how to better develop our Confucius Institute under such circumstances.” The letter proceeded to “clarify the mission of the Confucius Institutes,” provide a list of talking points, and urge “proactive” measures to improve the Confucius Institutes’ public standing.9

The Chinese government’s most effective strategy, though, has been one of rebranding—and it is this rebranding that colleges and universities are now mimicking when say they are closing their Confucius Institute but are in reality just renaming it. The Chinese government, for its part, has renamed the Hanban, which ran Confucius Institutes, the Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation. It has spun off a new nonprofit, the Chinese International Education Foundation, which now technically runs Confucius Institutes.

China’s Global Times presented the rebranding as a way to “disperse the Western misinterpretation that the organization served as China's ideological marketing machine.”10 Hanban’s transformation did, in fact, execute a plan the Chinese government had announced earlier that year to “reform” the image of Confucius Institutes, retooling them to “better serve Chinese diplomacy.”11

This reorganization changes little about the substance of Confucius Institutes. CIEF is technically a nongovernmental nonprofit, which defenders of Confucius Institutes say makes null past criticisms that Confucius Institutes are run by the Chinese government. In reality, the line between the Chinese government and its offshoot organization is paper-thin. It is under the supervision of the Chinese Ministry of Education and funded by the Chinese government.

CLEC continues to handle most of the work the Hanban once did. Per China’s Global Times, it maintains responsibility to “coordinate Chinese language learning resources, make standards for teaching and support training for teachers and compilation of books.”12

Hanban’s reorganization has prompted a cascade of rebranding efforts at American universities. Many are eager to ditch the now-toxic name “Confucius Institute” but retain funding and close relationships with Chinese institutions. These institutions have sought to keep aspects of their Confucius Institute without using the name. They understand that the brand “Confucius Institute” has become a political liability, yet they hope to maintain their previous engagement with the Chinese government.

The United States is headed for a post-Confucius Institute world. That is not to say it is free from inappropriate Chinese government influence campaigns—only that those influence campaigns have become more sophisticated and complicated. Confucius Institutes are falling away like a scaffold, unneeded, now that the relationships between American universities and the Chinese government have already been built.

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville, for its part, did close its Confucius Institute earlier this year. It remains in a variety of partnerships with South-Central University for Nationalities, the Chinese university that had been its partner in the Confucius Institute. The two universities have partnered, for instance, in the Master of English Education Program, which trains Chinese students to teach English.

In a letter to the Chinese government announcing plans to close the Confucius Institute, University of Wisconsin Platteville Chancellor Dennis J. Shields indicated that the Chinese government agencies CLEC and CIEF may be involved in facilitating that partnership. He also wrote to these agencies, both of which are successors to the Hanban, that “I look forward to our continued partnership in offering the Master of Science in Teaching English as a Second Language, as well as other programs and projects in the future.”

The Wisconsin State Senate may want to inquire of Chancellor Shields what role the Chinese government plays in the Master of English Education program, as well as what additional “programs and projects” Chancellor Shields hoped to pursue with CLEC and CIEF.

Finally, state legislatures can play a role.

Here are a few ideas. First, you can investigate. Ask Wisconsin colleges and universities about their relationships with Chinese institutions, and most important ask for details. Ask for copies of any agreements that have been signed, for dollar amounts and budgets, for the number of students participating in exchange programs, for the number of faculty engaged in joint research projects with Chinese institutions.

Second, you can consider legislation. There is an excellent model bill put forward by the Athenai Institute, a China-focused group founded by college students, and endorsed by the national leadership of both the College Republicans and the College Democrats. The bill is called the Athenai Act, and my organization, the National Association of Scholars, has endorsed it. The Athenai Act calls for Confucius Institutes and their successor organizations to close, on penalty of losing state funding.13

Third, you can step up transparency efforts. I briefly mentioned Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which requires colleges to disclose to the Department of Education major gifts and contracts coming from foreign sources. Although the Trump administration made great progress on enforcing this law, it has historically been almost completely unenforced, and enforcement under the Biden Administration has been once again almost non-existent. At least one state, Florida, has put together a state version of Section 117 requiring disclosure under state law of foreign gifts and contracts. That Florida bill did pass and was signed into law by Governor DeSantis.14 I highly recommend instituting something similar in Wisconsin.

The Chinese government is sophisticated and calculating. It has already prepared for the demise of Confucius Institutes. We should prepare, too.

1 Rachelle Peterson, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, National Association of Scholars, 2017.

2 “A Message from Confucius,” The Economist, October 22, 2009.

3 Wesley Rahn, “Why is the US targeting China's Confucius Institute?” Deutsche Welle, March 16, 2018.

4 In the Name of Confucius, Mark Media, 2016.

5 Rachelle Peterson, “How Many Confucius Institutes Are in the United States?” National Association of Scholars, last updated September 8, 2021.

6 Debing Su, “U-M to end agreement with Confucius Institute next year,” The University Record, December 10, 2018.

7 Confucius Institute U.S. Center, “Making a World of Difference,” PR Newswire, June 1, 2018.

8 Jenni Fink, “China Issues List of 'Wrongdoings' to U.S., Demands Behaviors Must Stop,” Newsweek, July 26, 2021.

9 See, for example, March 18, 2019 letter from Ma Jianfei, Deputy Chief Executive, Confucius Institute Headquarters, to Michael Schill, President of the University of Oregon.

10 Chen Xi, “New NGO to operate China's Confucius Institutes, 'disperse misinterpretation,'” Global Times, July 5, 2020.

11 Yang Sheng, “Confucius Institutes to better serve Chinese diplomacy,” Global Times, January 24, 2018.

12 Xi, “New NGO to operate China's Confucius Institutes, 'disperse misinterpretation.'”

13 “NAS Applauds the Newly Drafted ATHENAI Act,” National Association of Scholars, August 25, 2020.

14 David Acevedo, “Florida Turns Up the Heat on Foreign Influence,” National Association of Scholars, June 15, 2021.

Rachelle Peterson is Senior Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Vijay Kumar Koulampet, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, cropped.

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