Amid Fear of Foreign Influence, Colleges’ Confucius Institutes Face Renewed Skepticism
Posted on February 28, 2018 in In the News
As Americans and their policy makers focus on Russian interference in the 2016 election and broader efforts to stoke discord in American society, China’s relationship with the nation’s colleges and universities is drawing renewed attention as well.
Teaching centers on the language and history of China, funded by Beijing and known as Confucius Institutes, last received heightened scrutiny in 2014. At the time, a number of American universities chose to end their arrangements with the Chinese government out of concern about academic freedom and censorship on their campuses. The relationships between more than 100 American colleges and China also drew a rebuke from the American Association of University Professors.
From 2010 to 2016, Hanban, the Chinese-government office that oversees the institutes, provided 15 American universities with more than $17 million in gifts and contracts, according to disclosures to the U.S. Department of Education. That total is likely to be understated, given that colleges must report only transactions of $250,000 or greater.
Indeed, a $4.1-million donation to Stanford University in 2010 to finance a Confucius Institute and an endowed professorship — the largest transaction ever reported by a college with Hanban in those seven years — raised concerns at the time because of the terms that were stipulated by the Chinese government. A Stanford dean told Bloomberg News that a Chinese representative had suggested the yet-to-be-hired professor avoid the topic of Tibet, a sensitive topic for Beijing because of Tibetan nationalism and accusations of Chinese human-rights abuses there. Stanford refused to accept the proposal, and the university received the money anyway.
A 2017 report by the National Association of Scholars said 103 Confucius Institutes were operating on American campuses, with the Chinese government typically contributing $150,000 for start-up costs and $100,000 annually thereafter. The association’s president wrote about its findings on Monday in a Chronicle essay that referred to “China’s pernicious presence on American campuses.
The growing economic and geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China, a rising global power, is likely to be another source of the renewed scrutiny of Confucius Institutes in recent years. That alone distinguishes the institutes from France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut.
The resurgent attention to Confucius Institutes and Chinese influence operations can also be traced to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. In early February the Republican senator sent letters urging five Florida colleges to cut their ties with the China-sponsored centers.
“There is mounting concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to use ‘Confucius Institutes’ and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China’s past history and present policies,” Rubio wrote.
The University of West Florida announced shortly thereafter that it would end its relationship with Hanban, though not because of the Rubio letter, but rather a lack of interest. Judy L. Genshaft, campus and system president of the University of South Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times that her institution had no reason to believe its Confucius Institute had been compromised by Chinese state actors, but would review the partnership anyway.
Rubio also pressed Christopher A. Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, on the issue during a February 13 hearing on foreign threats held by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wray told Rubio the FBI shared his concerns about the institutes, which he described as “one of many tools that they take advantage of.”
“We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we’re watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps,” Wray told the committee.
More broadly, Wray said, the open research-and-development environment of academe was being exploited by Chinese operatives and affiliates to gather intelligence and influence American society.
Those comments have since drawn consternation, including from three student leaders at Georgetown University, who said Wray had engaged in “xenophobia, fearmongering, and discrimination.” The trio are seeking support from Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia. Members of the Chinese Faculty and Staff Association at the University of Texas at Arlington are preparing to ask the same of their institution.