The Confucius Institute (CI) first came to my attention a few years ago when I was having dinner with a friend who had close ties and past experience with the U.S. intelligence community. My college-aged nephew was about to depart on a semester-long trip to China, and that bothered my friend tremendously.
I didn’t at first know whether the trip was affiliated with the CI—I hadn’t even heard of the CI at the time—but when we verified that the trip was so affiliated, I learned what the CI was, and my friend explained several problematic consequences to me.
He started by asking a simple question: “Why do you think the communist government in China is spending money to benefit American schools?” Logical answers weren’t easy to come by. I didn’t think he would accept something like “to make new friends.”
It turns out that communist governments never miss a chance to develop, influence, or infiltrate organizations that can be of political use, and the CI program is no exception. Founded in 2004, the CI sets up offices in cooperation with local affiliate colleges and universities around the globe, and they essentially become part of the college curriculum.
CIs typically offer a combination of Mandarin language classes, cultural programming, and outreach to local elementary and secondary schools. They are staffed with professors from China (funded by the Chinese government) and by U.S. professors (funded by the university). They often offer interesting opportunities, such as the semester abroad my nephew took. With colleges and universities anxious to offer more choices to their students in times of tight budgets, CIs are attractive to administrators.
The CI bills itself as a “non-profit public educational organization” affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, whose stated aim is to promote Chinese language and culture, support Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges. Its programs are overseen by Hanban (the Ministry’s Office of Chinese Language Council International), which selects the Chinese teachers and pays their salaries.
Less often noted is that wherever they are placed, CIs also promote the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
In 2010, Minister of Propaganda Liu Yunshan said, “With regard to key issues that influence our sovereignty and safety, we should actively carry out international propaganda battles against issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, human rights, and Falun Gong. … We should do well in establishing and operating overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.”
Li Changchun, the fifth highest-ranking member of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, explained that the CIs are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
Last March, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) blasted CIs, arguing, “These institutes are proxies for the Chinese Communist Party. They offer schools financial benefits, in exchange to set up shop in close proximity to U.S. researchers and students whose views they attempt to influence for what are essentially manipulative propaganda campaigns—ones that conveniently whitewash over the communist regime’s less flattering attributes and their troubling history of human-rights abuses and belligerence in places like the South China Sea.”
In a February 2018 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that China was exploiting the United States’ academic environment, using CIs for non-American interests.
Professor Marshall Sahlins of the University of Chicago wrote a book in which he called the CI program “academic malware,” in that it enters the U.S. higher education system and infects it. Just last April, two Texas congressmen called CIs a “threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda.”
Some observers call the CI program “an exercise in soft power” in that it expands China’s economic, cultural, and diplomatic reach while limiting concerns about China’s threat as an economic and military power. The one-sided classes taught in CIs never include discussions of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, China’s aggression towards Tibet, Taiwan’s asserted independence, or the persecution of Falun Gong.
There is no mention of anything that is embarrassing to the Chinese government or that casts it in a bad light.
From the very beginning, CIs drew criticism from professors who felt they were a threat to academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) even issued a report in 2014, which said, “Allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities.”
The report went on to recommend that universities “cease their involvement in Confucius Institutes unless the agreement between the university and Hanban is renegotiated” so as to assure that the university has unilateral control over all academic matters (including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum, and choice of texts), academic freedom for CI teachers, and the agreements are made public.
Reach and Influence
At one time, CIs were established and operating at more than 90 U.S. colleges and universities, but their impact was even greater than that. My nephew’s college, for instance, didn’t host an institute on its campus. There was one, however, on a nearby campus, and it ran programs that were open to students at both schools. (A friend with the FBI later informed me that they had “fought off” CI efforts to establish a branch on my campus at the University of Mississippi.)
My dinner companion spoke about concerns tied directly to the students who visit China, like my nephew. They would be studied, cultivated, and perhaps even placed in compromising situations. After all, the students in programs like this are likely to emerge as leaders of the future. Any of these matters could give China leverage. It was too late to convince my sister’s family to cancel my nephew’s plans, but my friend scheduled a meeting to warn him about what he was getting into.
Perhaps because of that warning, my nephew came home from China (and he graduated from college) unpersuaded by communist propaganda from the CI. He recently even qualified as a Ranger in the U.S. Army. That does not mean, however, that we should turn a blind eye to these pro-communist efforts on our college campuses.
Last year, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) proposed legislation requiring CIs to register as foreign agents and requiring universities to disclose any substantial donations received from overseas organizations such as the CI. While that bill awaits action, Congress passed a defense bill last summer that bars colleges from using Department of Defense funding for CIs. Over a half-dozen colleges and universities closed their CIs in response to that legislation, but many are trying to hold on.
Concerned Americans must be on guard. They need to find out about their local campuses and monitor their students’ college classes. Even if legislative efforts manage to close all CIs, other programs will spring up. As stated earlier, communist governments never miss a chance to develop, influence, or infiltrate organizations that can be of political use. They will keep doing it as long as unconcerned or unaware citizens let them.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.