A group of seven Republican senators is backing legislation that would require more transparency from Confucius Institutes (CIs), which are Beijing-funded and -controlled, in the latest effort to combat the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) malicious activities in U.S. colleges and universities.
The legislation, formally called the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act, was introduced on March 12 by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). It would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to require program participation agreements between CIs and U.S. schools that house them to address the ways that Beijing exerts inappropriate influence.
The proposed bill would also create clearer distinctions between CI-directed programs and the host school’s own Chinese history, language, and culture programs. It also requires a CI to remove the Chinese co-director position, perform background checks for staff and professors, make public the agreements it makes with the hosting school, and use “stronger language” in those agreements to make it clearer that the school has executive decision-making authority.
“The Chinese government has no right to influence American education the way Confucius Institutes have for the past sixteen years,” Blackburn said in a statement. “Confucius Institutes as they currently operate are an affront to academic freedom, and we should not bow to repressive Chinese propaganda systems. It is time to put some serious distance between Confucius Institutes and American Universities.”
Blackburn is joined in the effort by co-sponsors Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who are notably outspoken in their opposition to the growing CCP threat to academics and other aspects of U.S. society.
In 2004, the University of Maryland became the first institution in the United States to host a Confucius Institute. The number of CIs across the country steadily increased over time, growing to roughly 100 at its peak. CIs are usually headed by a director, who is typically a faculty or staff member from the host university, and a Chinese co-director, who reports to Beijing and oversees Chinese teaching staff.
China’s Ministry of Education generally provides startup and annual funding, recruits language teachers from China, and provides teaching materials and curricula.
However, the program, which is designed to expand the CCP’s overseas influence, has gained notoriety in recent years as tensions have grown between the Beijing regime and Washington. Over the past six years, at least 29 of the U.S. universities that hosted Confucius Institutes have closed them, according to Human Rights Watch.
In September 2014, the University of Chicago declined to renew the contract with its CI following a petition signed by more than 100 faculty members. The petition described the CI as “an academically and politically ambiguous initiative” that sought to advance foreign interest at the expense of the host university’s academic independence.
In June of that year, the American Association of University Professors called on American universities to shut down their CIs, accusing them of advancing a state agenda “in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”
Early this year, Wallace Loh, the president of the University of Maryland, said the school decided to close its Confucius Institute at the end of the academic year. He emphasized that the action was because of the 2019 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act, which forced schools to choose between keeping their Confucius Institutes or receiving language program funding from the Defense Department.
Twenty-two of the Institutes closed after the law passed in August 2018, with 12 schools noting the need to comply with the act, Human Rights Watch reported.