The U.S. Senate has passed the CONFUCIUS Act (Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States Act), a bipartisan bill introduced by Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) and cosponsored by Senators Doug Jones (D-AL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
The National Association of Scholars commends the bill and urges the House to pass this important legislation. We also recommend additional amendments to further protect higher education from the Chinese government’s undue influence.
The CONFUCIUS Act addresses Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government-sponsored centers on college campuses that NAS helped to expose with our 2017 report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education. Confucius Institutes undermine academic freedom, present students with Chinese government propaganda, and compromise colleges and universities in entangling financial relationships with the Hanban, the Chinese government agency that oversees Confucius Institutes.
Under the CONFUCIUS Act, colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes would become ineligible for grants from the Department of Education, unless their policies and contracts with the Hanban include “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.”
If fully carried out, these provisions would effectively shut down Confucius Institutes as currently operating across the country. The Hanban routinely asks colleges and universities to adhere to Chinese law and hire teachers selected and trained by the Hanban. The Hanban also demands veto power over courses and programs offered by Confucius Institutes, and undermines academic freedom by encouraging self-censorship on the part of American scholars and demanding censorship by Chinese teachers in Confucius Institutes.
However, NAS reiterates our call for the federal government to condition funding on the closure of Confucius Institutes, not just on the adoption of further protective policies. The Chinese government has perfected the art of bureaucratic double-speak: China’s Constitution protects freedom of speech and association, yet China ranks among the lowest of all nations on all indices of freedom.
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.
For instance, NAS has long criticized the contracts the Hanban asks colleges and universities to sign when setting up a Confucius Institute, contracts that reserve enormous control to the Chinese government. But we have also argued that these contracts are more important as signals of the Chinese government’s preferences, rather than legal requirements that colleges are forced to fulfill.
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.
We applaud Senators Kennedy, Jones, Grassley, and Blackburn for taking up this important issue, and we commend the Senate for passing this bill. We now urge the House to take up the CONFUCIUS Act and to amend it so as to condition Department of Education funding on the closure of Confucius Institutes.
Image: Peggy_Marco, Public Domain