NAS Statement on Foreign Influence Transparency Act

National Association of Scholars

The National Association of Scholars is pleased to see the introduction of the Foreign Influence Transparency Act of 2018, co-sponsored by Representative Joe Wilson, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senator Tom Cotton. This bill addresses the problem of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes and other sources of foreign influence on college campuses by requiring greater transparency.

Last year the National Association of Scholars raised alarms about Confucius Institutes, which operate on more than 100 American college campuses as outposts of the Chinese government’s overseas propaganda efforts. Our report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, found that Confucius Institutes undermine intellectual freedom and threaten the integrity of higher education. They teach a whitewashed version of Chinese history and pressure American scholars to self-censor research topics that offend the Chinese government. NAS calls on all colleges and universities to close their Confucius Institutes at once.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Act does not specifically mention Confucius Institutes, but it includes two of NAS’s proposed policy changes. It would amend the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law that requires agents of foreign governments and political parties to register with the Department of Justice. A loophole in the law currently permits foreign governments to disseminate propaganda under the guise of an “educational” or “scholastic” organization. This bill would clarify that educational and scholastic organizations would be exempt “only if the activities do not promote the political agenda of a government of a foreign country.”

The bill would also amend the Higher Education Act, which currently requires colleges and universities to disclose gifts totaling $250,000 or more in a calendar year from a foreign donor. NAS called on Congress to lower the threshold to $50,000 and clarify that the fair market value of in-kind gifts should count toward that total. Senator Rubio and Senator Cotton’s version of the bill does exactly that. Representative Wilson’s bill would require colleges to continue disclosing gifts from a foreign donor totaling $250,000 in a year, but adds that any single gift or contract totaling $50,000 must also be disclosed.

We have some concerns about Representative Wilson’s version, which creates a loophole by which the Chinese government could fund Confucius Institutes in installments of $49,000 without triggering the disclosure mechanism.

We are also concerned that Senator Rubio and Senator Cotton’s version of the bill deletes language that had required the disclosure of either large single gifts or a series of small gifts "considered alone or in combination with all other" gifts and contracts from a foreign source. We will trust that these matters will be fixed as the bill proceeds through committee, and we will advocate for these loopholes to be closed.

We are pleased to see a third policy change in the bill, one that we did not specifically recommend but that we endorse as an excellent, necessary step toward combating the secrecy surrounding foreign influence operations on college campuses. The Foreign Influence Transparency Act would require colleges and universities to disclose the text of any contracts that pertain to gifts that are disclosed to the Department of Education. In our research we found that Confucius Institute contracts frequently had alarming clauses that required the contract to be kept secret, pledged adherence to Chinese law, and gave an agency of the Chinese government authority to vet all curriculum and course plans. It is important for Americans to see the troubling contracts that American universities have agreed to sign with the Chinese government.

We thank Representative Wilson, Senator Rubio, and Senator Cotton for introducing this bill, and we look forward to working constructively with their offices going forward.

Image Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

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