The Confucius Institutes, China’s vehicle for ideological warfare in America

Last night, I wrote about Taiwan and the growing Chinese threat. The threat I discussed was the military one.

In the modern world, ideological warfare goes hand-in-hand with military threats. Thus, though few Americans know about it, we shouldn’t be surprised that China is waging ideological warfare on American college and university campuses. What’s surprising, perhaps, is the complicity of our colleges and universities.

China fights its ideological battle on American campuses through Confucius Institutes. Since 2004, the Chinese government has planted “Institutes” that offer Chinese language and culture courses at colleges and universities around the world, including more than 100 in the United States. As the National Association of Scholars (NAS) documented in this report, the Confucius Institutes avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, portray Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and educate a generation of American students to know nothing more of China than the regime’s official history.

Here’s how deep the whitewash goes. The Chinese director of one Institute said that if a student asked about Tiananmen Square, she would “show a picture and point out the beautiful architecture.”

How does China induce colleges and universities to cooperate in its propaganda war? According to the NAS report, it does so not just by providing funding, free textbooks, and teachers, but also by attracting full-tuition paying Chinese students, funding scholarships for Americans to study abroad, and serving as a conduit through which college presidents and administrators enjoy trips to and state dinners in China.

Sen. Marco Rubio raised the matter of Confucius Institutes during an Intelligence Committee briefing last week. You can watch the video here. Rubio prefaces his comments on the Confucius Institute with an excellent short summary of the overall Chinese threat.

In response to Rubio, FBI Direction Christopher Wray acknowledged the problem of the Institutes, but suggested that China’s enthusiasm for them may be diminishing.

Perhaps. But I think it’s more likely that China, usually at least one step ahead of us, is giving the Confucius Institutes a makeover in order to sustain and enhance their efficacy as a propaganda tool.

Rachelle Peterson makes that case in an article for American Greatness. It seems that the decision to make over the Institutes comes from the highest level of the Chinese government. Peterson cites a Global Times report that President Xi Jinping presided over a meeting of the Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform of the 19th Communist Party of China Central Committee, where adoption of the Confucian Institutes reform plan took place.

What is the nature of the “reforms”? Peterson writes:

Ma Jianfei [a deputy executive of the Institutes] calls for providing “strengthened support from China” to all “local faculty” — the American professors who also have roles at their university’s Confucius Institute. That amounts to a warning: We are watching you. China already sends everything from the textbooks and course maps to the logo decals for the front door and office decorations. The Chinese government regulates every aspect of each Confucius Institute. American universities do not need more “support” from China. They need freedom.

[In addition], Ma intends that going forward, “More Chinese deans and teachers will be employed overseas.” There is nothing wrong with American colleges hosting guest professors and participating in educational exchanges, to be sure. But Confucius Institutes are already staffed almost entirely by teachers selected by the Chinese government. Every Confucius Institute also has a “Chinese co-director,” a high-ranking professor or administrator from a Chinese university who helps oversee all operations and reports back to China. If China’s only interest is in promoting the study of Chinese language and culture, why not send strings-free funds to American universities and let them select promising American scholars of Chinese to employ?

There is nothing illegal about Confucius Institutes. How, then, should we respond to them?

Peterson takes up this question in an article for The Hill. She proposes the following:

First, make colleges choose between China’s gifts and federal funding. When a college receives Confucius Institute funding, its eligibility for federal Chinese-language grants should decrease proportionately.

Second, require financial transparency. The Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities to disclose gifts from a foreign entity totaling $250,000 or more in a calendar year. That threshold should be lowered to $50,000 — about the cost of hiring a full-time instructor at a four-year public university — and it should include the fair market value of in-kind gifts.

Third, enforce existing law. The Justice Department has authority to investigate and sue institutions that fail to disclose gifts properly. According to Peterson, most Confucius Institutes fail to meet reporting obligations.

In addition, Confucius Institutes should be investigated for potential violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and held accountable for employment discrimination, including national origin and religious discrimination. In 2012, one Confucius Institute in Canada closed after a teacher filed a human rights complaint documenting the discrimination she faced for practicing Falun Gong, which is banned in China.

Fourth, hold more hearings. We need to shine as much light as possible shine on Confucius Institutes. They are an affront to intellectual freedom and American interests.

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