Confucius Institutes, which receive significant funding from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), are educational partnership programs for students outside of China, including in the United States, to learn Chinese languages and culture. But in recent years they have garnered attention for suspected propagandistic agendas.
"I think what the Confucius Institutes do, and I’m no expert on them, is to promote a narrative of Xi Jinping’s China, which is designed to build sympathy for what is, in my view, a quite aggressive leadership, which is engaged in conduct and conducted an adversarial approach to relations with the United States," William Burns, former State Department diplomat to Russia and Biden's CIA nominee, told the committee.
"So in that sense, that particular dimension of foreign influence operations constitutes a genuine risk," he added. "And so my advice for any institutions in the United States, including academic institutions, is to be extraordinarily careful of what the motives are for a variety of institutions like that and to be very careful in engaging them."
Burn’s warnings are likely to appeal to congressional Republicans who have feared Biden’s relationship with China will be softer than his predecessor’s administration.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy Devos issued warnings in October to schools in all 50 states from preschool to the university level, that the PRC was running a "global influence campaign."
"Beijing tries to advance its soft power and pro-China propaganda through cultural and educational programs at US academic institutions," Burns said in his written responses prior to the committee’s hearing. "Programs such as Confucius Institutes fund Chinese-language learning and provide the CCP direct access to university officials. Beijing uses this access to spread positive portrayals of China, and steer conversations from topics sensitive to the CCP."
And when asked by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, if he would recommend that schools shut down their Confucius programs entirely, he said, "If I were president of a college or university and had a Confucius Institute, that’s certainly what I would do."
Burns told lawmakers that Xi Jinping's actions over the last several years have served as "a very sharp wake-up call," alerting him to the aggressive domination China seeks in the global community.
Biden vowed to be tough on China from the campaign trail, but he has remained relatively mum on what policies he intends to continue from the Trump administration.
Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian urged the U.S. to "abandon the zero-sum game mindset," during a Thursday press conference.
"Over the past few years, out of political purposes, the former U.S. administration made severe miscalculations and misinterpretations on China's goals and policies," he told reporters. He added that the Chinese government hopes the Biden administration will "adopt positive, constructive China policies."