Biden Administration Draws Criticism for Decision to Scrap Trump’s Policy on Confucius Institutes

February 10, 2021 Updated: February 10, 2021

The Biden administration has quietly scrapped a proposal by the Trump administration to safeguard U.S. academic freedom from the threat of Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes (CI).

The proposed rule, named “Establishing Requirement for Student and Exchange Visitor Program Certified Schools to Disclose Agreements with Confucius Institutes and Classrooms,” was submitted by the Trump administration to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Dec. 31, 2020.

Under the rule, colleges and K–12 schools that are certified to host foreign exchange programs would need to disclose their financial ties to CIs and the affiliated Confucius Classrooms.

Last month, an unidentified DHS official told Axios that the rule would also apply to “any other cultural institutes or student groups, such as Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, that are funded directly or indirectly by China.”

The proposal was withdrawn on Jan. 26, according to the U.S. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is a division of the White House’s budget office.

On Feb. 9, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the law enforcement agency under DHS, confirmed by email that the rule had been withdrawn. The spokesperson declined to comment on the reasoning for the cancellation.

“ICE does not speculate about future pre-decisional proposed rules or policies,” the spokesperson stated.

Under the Trump administration, CI language and culture programs came under scrutiny from U.S. officials over concerns that they spread Chinese propaganda, restrict academic freedom, and facilitate espionage in U.S. classrooms. In August last year, the State Department designated a Washington-based center that promotes CIs in the United States as a foreign mission.

In 2004, the University of Maryland became home to the first CI in the United States; since then, more than 100 CIs have been established at U.S. schools.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS), an education advocacy group, reported that 55 CIs have closed or are in the processing of closing, as of Jan. 19. Currently, 63 CIs remain open in the United States, including two that are scheduled to close later this year.

There has been a global pushback against CIs, most notably in countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In 2013, McMaster University in Canada became the first university in North America to close its CI.

The Biden administration’s decision has since been heavily criticized by several Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

“By quietly backing away from the proposed rule without consulting Congress, the Biden administration is sending a concerning signal about its scrutiny of CCP [Chinese Communist Party] influence in academia, and telling academic institutions that they don’t need to be transparent about their ties to China’s regime,” McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

“I strongly urge the Biden Administration to stick to its promises to prioritize the CCP as our main national security challenge, including in the American education system.”

Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.) wrote on Twitter that CIs are “a growing threat to both our national security and to the future of American research & innovation,” pointing to a 2020 report on China created by the China Task Force, a group of Republican congress members concerned about the Beijing regime’s influence.

“Rather than encourage propaganda, the Biden Admin should stand with the American people against the CCP,” he stated.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said Biden’s decision was “short-sighted and harmful,” according to a statement from her office.

“This illogical decision helps fuel the propaganda of America’s number one adversary, jeopardizes the integrity of our education system, and puts students on American campuses at risk,” she stated.

There has been a push at the state level to close local CIs.

Last week, Utah state Rep. Candice Pierucci, a Republican, introduced a resolution (H.J.R.8) to protect her state’s institutions of higher education from CCP influence.

The resolution calls on colleges and universities in Utah to disclose their CI contracts and close the facilities. According to the NAS, the University of Utah and Southern Utah University have CIs on their campus.

In July last year, Alabama state Rep. Tommy Hanes unveiled a measure that would ban CIs from the state’s public colleges.

At least one U.S. official has publicly called for American students to learn the Chinese language and history from Taiwan instead of at CIs.

“Learning Mandarin from Taiwanese teachers means learning Mandarin in an environment free from censorship or coercion,” said William Brent Christensen, the Taipei office director of the American Institute in Taiwan, in an interview with Japanese media Nikkei Asia earlier this month. The institute is the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan.

Aside from withdrawing the proposed CI rule, the Biden administration has undone a number of other Trump administration policies related to China—including rejoining the Paris climate accord, reengaging with the United Nations Human Rights Council, and rejoining the World Health Organization. 

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer