A concerned student at Binghamton University, a public university in New York, challenged the propriety of the school’s partnership with the China-funded Confucius Institute on its campus earlier this year. Last month, the university published an imperious rebuff to the inquiry.
“The campus is confident that the concerns you raise in your email do not apply to Binghamton University’s [Confucius] Institute,” wrote the school’s attorney.
Simply put: Move along. There’s nothing to see here.
But the FBI is moving in the opposite direction. In 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before a Senate committee, declaring his intention to investigate the Chinese Communist Party-funded Confucius Institutes on American college campuses.
Confucius Institutes are ostensibly educational partnerships between the Chinese government and host schools in foreign countries. Their stated purpose is to teach language and culture, but they do much more than that.
Professor Jonathan Lipman of Mount Holyoke College explains, “By peddling a product we want, namely Chinese language study, the Confucius Institutes bring the Chinese government into the American academy in powerful ways. The general pattern is very clear. They can say, ‘We’ll give you this money, you’ll have a Chinese program, and nobody will talk about Tibet.’” Tibet is one of the three “T-words” (Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen) that cannot be discussed at the institutes, in violation of academic freedom and free speech.
Confucius Institute funding is tied to China Politburo member Liu Yandong, who formerly led the United Front Work Department. Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute testified before Congress that the United Front Work Department’s purpose is “to subvert, coopt, and ultimately control Western academic discourse on matters pertaining to China.”
New York University historian Jonathan Zimmerman cautions that Confucius Institutes bear an alarming resemblance to the 1930s “Mussolini model” of funding “Italian language centers” in the United States to promote fascist propaganda. In light of academic freedom and transparency violations, Wray testified again in 2019, saying Confucius Institutes are “part of China’s soft power strategy and influence,” which “offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom.”
In announcing the FBI’s planned probe into campuses with Confucius Institutes, Wray corroborated what higher education researchers have warned for some time: These Confucius Institutes are not really educational projects and have no business being associated with higher learning institutions. They are propaganda centers planted on America’s campuses as part of China’s worldwide intelligence operations.
American colleges and universities depend for their existence on academic freedom and the transparency that supports it. Confucius Institutes, however, have been shown to abuse academic freedom and mock transparency.
It is thus heartening to see that roughly two dozen U.S. universities have moved to close their Confucius Institutes since 2014. In 2013, University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Marshall Sahlins penned an article asking, “China U: Confucius Institutes censor political discussions and restrain the free exchange of ideas. Why, then, do American universities sponsor them?” He urged his university to set an example by revoking its partnership. In 2014, his university did just that, as did Penn State.
That said, about 80 schools still continue their ill-advised “partnerships” with these propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party.
Joining in opposition to Confucius Institutes in America are the national executive board of the College Democrats of America (along with 15 of its state presidents), the executive committee and national committee of the College Republican National Committee, Students for a Free Tibet, the Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association, Students for Falun Gong, and a number of other organizations, all of which can be found by going to the website of the movement’s organizing body, the Athenai Institute.
The American Association of University Professors — hardly a right-wing organization — called on universities in 2014 to drop their Confucius Institutes, finding that they “function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.” The Canadian Association of University Teachers urged universities to get rid of them as well.
This exodus is not restricted to American educators. This year, Sweden closed its last remaining Confucius Institute. A 2014 Washington Post editorial argued that “academic freedom cannot have a price tag,” urging that Confucius Institute partnerships should be terminated if universities refuse to publish the terms of their contracts with them.
However, too many American universities continue muzzled. According to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which has been keen to this threat for some time, as of May 1, there are a total of 86 Confucius Institutes in this country. “This includes six that are scheduled to close in summer 2020: the University of Maryland, New Mexico State University, the University of Missouri, the University of Arizona, Miami University of Ohio, and the University of California-Davis.” NAS also found seven institutes at K-12 public school districts.
That roughly 80 universities have failed to safeguard their institutions’ commitment to free speech against these propaganda efforts means that either they lack the moral fiber required to defend American core values, or they were never that hot about American values in the first place.
Consider the recent survey conducted by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which found that 77 percent of colleges now use secret social media blacklists “to censor the public, in violation of the First Amendment.” Or perhaps it’s a third option: Is it all about the money? Lipman remarks, “In this economy, turning [Confucius Institutes] down has real costs.”
NAS reveals that the Chinese government “selects and pays the teachers, sends free textbooks, and offers upwards of $100,000 a year in annual funding” for the institutes. Although universities “are supposed to match” China’s contributions, they “typically do so by volunteering classroom and office space. The result is that colleges can charge tuition for courses that are being funded — and whose content is largely being decided — by the Chinese government” (emphasis added).
NAS’s findings are supported by a study published in The China Journal by Brookings Institution fellow David Shambaugh, who found that the funding “is in fact laundered through the Ministry of Education.” Laundered from where? From communist China’s External Propaganda Department.
If you still wonder about the purpose of Confucius Institutes, consider this assessment from someone who should know. Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, praised the institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
What can be done? A number of proposed remedies are already circulating. In addition to sounding the alarm, NAS has called on schools that accept Confucius Institute dollars to refund the same amount back to the federal government, as well as enforce federal transparency requirements on the institutes. These and like measures would be a good start.
Better still, our national security should require that all remaining Confucius Institutes on American soil be shut down — immediately.