China’s Insidious Institutes

Rachelle Peterson

Editor's note: This article was originally published by National Review on March 15, 2019. 

Hanban has asked Confucius Institutes, in their annual self-assessment reports, to describe the positive media coverage they generated. In 2011, a Hanban official asked Confucius Institute directors if CCTV, China’s national television station, was available on campus. CCTV has since been rebranded China Global Television Network, which is registered with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent.

Those details make it all the more alarming that federal transparency laws are outdated and unenforced. Nearly 70 percent of colleges receiving Chinese-government funding for Confucius Institutes never reported those donations to the Department of Education, the subcommittee report found — contra federal law.

In a hearing last month, Senator Portman questioned Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell M. Zais, who pledged that the department will update and reissue its 15-year-old guidance on foreign-gift disclosures and will send copies of the subcommittee’s report to all colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes.

Those are good steps, but Congress also needs to update and strengthen existing statutes. The Higher Education Act stipulates an unreasonably high threshold for disclosure: $250,000 from a single source in a calendar year, even though the average salary for a full-time instructor at a four-year college is only about $50,000.

Lawmakers must also close loopholes, making clear that gifts to university foundations are subject to the same disclosures. And we need more specific information on where donations come from and what they are used for — such as the name of the government office making the gift, the terms or conditions under which the gift was made, and the program or purpose for which the recipient college earmarked the gift. The American public and lawmakers need this information in order to distinguish benign gifts from those that are potentially problematic.

Last year the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), and Representative Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), and the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act, sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) and Representative Francis Rooney (R., Fla.), proposed important improvements to these disclosures, but Congress failed to pass either bill.

Senator Rob Portman is asking the right questions, and his subcommittee’s report sheds much-needed light on how China intends to co-opt American campuses. It’s time for Congress to act.

Hanban has asked Confucius Institutes, in their annual self-assessment reports, to describe the positive media coverage they generated. In 2011, a Hanban official asked Confucius Institute directors if CCTV, China’s national television station, was available on campus. CCTV has since been rebranded China Global Television Network, which is registered with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent.

Those details make it all the more alarming that federal transparency laws are outdated and unenforced. Nearly 70 percent of colleges receiving Chinese-government funding for Confucius Institutes never reported those donations to the Department of Education, the subcommittee report found — contra federal law.

In a hearing last month, Senator Portman questioned Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell M. Zais, who pledged that the department will update and reissue its 15-year-old guidance on foreign-gift disclosures and will send copies of the subcommittee’s report to all colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes.

Those are good steps, but Congress also needs to update and strengthen existing statutes. The Higher Education Act stipulates an unreasonably high threshold for disclosure: $250,000 from a single source in a calendar year, even though the average salary for a full-time instructor at a four-year college is only about $50,000.

Lawmakers must also close loopholes, making clear that gifts to university foundations are subject to the same disclosures. And we need more specific information on where donations come from and what they are used for — such as the name of the government office making the gift, the terms or conditions under which the gift was made, and the program or purpose for which the recipient college earmarked the gift. The American public and lawmakers need this information in order to distinguish benign gifts from those that are potentially problematic.

Last year the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), and Representative Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), and the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act, sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) and Representative Francis Rooney (R., Fla.), proposed important improvements to these disclosures, but Congress failed to pass either bill.

Senator Rob Portman is asking the right questions, and his subcommittee’s report sheds much-needed light on how China intends to co-opt American campuses. It’s time for Congress to act.

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