Over 20 lawmakers have called for an end to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) multi-billion-dollar overseas education program, saying it infringes on academic integrity and national security. The program has been carried out through CCP-run Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses.
In a letter to Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on April 7, the lawmakers called for an end to the institutes and their replacement with “censorship-free alternatives to support the instruction of Mandarin language and Chinese culture, specifically those offered by Taiwan.”
“Many recent studies provide examples of PRC [People’s Republic of China] officials pressuring faculty at Confucius Institutes to avoid making statements or holding events on topics that officials consider to be in conflict with the PRC’s national interests,” the letter reads.
The call was led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). Several California lawmakers were among the all-Republican signatories, including Reps. Michelle Steel, Young Kim, Ken Calvert, and Doug LaMalfa.
The State Department last year designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS)—an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education—a foreign mission of the CCP. The Confucius Institute headquarters has since changed its name to the Center for Language Education and Cooperation, a move the letter calls a “rebranding” to “avoid this designation” as a foreign mission.
“It remains unacceptable for the PRC to fund any instruction at American IHEs (institutions of higher education),” the letter states.
There are currently 55 Confucius Institutes operating on American soil. CCP-funded Confucius Classrooms are also found in 519 K-12 schools in the United States, according to a 2019 staff report by a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
That report detailed how the CCP approves all Confucius Institute teachers and events, imposing limitations that “attempt to export China’s censorship of political debate and prevent discussion of potentially politically sensitive topics.”
The report stated the institutes are part of a long-term CCP strategy “to change the impression in the United States and around the world that China is an economic and security threat … [and encourage] complacency towards China’s pervasive, long-term initiatives against both government critics at home and businesses and academic institutions abroad.”
The subcommittee found that since 2006, the CCP has provided over $158 million in funding to U.S. schools for Confucius Institutes. However, 70 of the schools failed to report the large foreign gifts as required by law.
‘In the Name of Confucius’
A March 20 panel discussion hosted and livestreamed by Students for Falun Gong, Students for a Free Tibet, and the Athenai Institute, looked at the issue of Confucius Institutes. It included a screening of the award-winning 2017 documentary, “In the Name of Confucius.”
Filmmaker and former Confucius Institute teacher Sonia Zhao recalled the hiring process, in which she was required to sign a contract that prohibits staff from engaging in the spiritual meditation practice of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa.
Practitioners of Falun Gong have been persecuted by the CCP for more than 20 years, including the harvesting of organs, torture, and forced labor, as reported by the U.S. Department of State, Amnesty International, and many Western media outlets, among others.
Zhao said Canada’s McMaster University was the first to close a Confucius Institute due to its policy against Falun Gong, in 2013.
Perry Link, chancellorial chair professor for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California–Riverside and professor emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, was part of the panel. He said Confucius Institutes’ omission of important aspects of Chinese history—including the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the persecution of Falun Gong—is harmful for students.
“When you leave out the other parts [of history], the audience loses twice. It loses once because the things that are omitted aren’t known. And it loses again because the visible part is different if you don’t know what the invisible part is,” he said.
Although there are some 50 Confucius Institutes operating in U.S. colleges and universities, that number is down from more than 100 in 2017.
In the past two years, for example, five Confucius Institutes have closed in California. They were shuttered in 2019 at San Diego State University and San Francisco State University, and in 2020 at the University of California–Los Angeles, University of California–Davis, and California State University–Long Beach.
Confucius Institutes remain in operation at three locations in California: Stanford University, the University of California–Santa Barbara, and San Diego Global Knowledge University.
A bill introduced by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), dubbed the Confucius Act, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in March. It would cut federal funding from universities that host Confucius Institutes and ban the application of foreign law on U.S. campuses. The bill also passed unanimously during last year’s Senate session.
On April 1, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill to force transparency in U.S. colleges regarding agreements with foreign entities “seeking to leverage influence on American college campuses.”
In a Twitter post announcing the legislation, Gosar wrote that “Confucius Institutes at U.S. colleges and universities are spewing CCP propaganda.”
The CCP-run institutes have received bipartisan criticism. In May 2020, the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America wrote a joint letter calling for the “immediate and permanent closure of all Confucius Institutes in the United States.”
It cited a “long and growing list of offenses adding up to a long-term campaign undeniably aimed at expanding the reach and power of the Chinese state’s apparatus of oppression.”
The lawmakers who signed the April 7 letter to Education Secretary Cardona urged a collaboration with Taiwan, instead of the CCP, on Chinese language and culture education.
The letter states: “The U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative is an exemplary program, for it seeks to increase opportunities for American students to learn Mandarin, while abiding by the U.S. and Taiwan’s shared commitment to academic freedom.”