WASHINGTON -- Senators are considering legislation to constrain Chinese government-funded institutes they say are spreading propaganda and limiting criticism of China at hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools and colleges across the United States.
Confucius Institutes “depict China as approachable and compassionate; rarely are events critical or controversial,” according to a bipartisan report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “The Chinese government approves all teachers, events, and speakers. Some U.S. schools contractually agree that both Chinese and U.S. laws will apply.”
In the last 15 years, the Chinese government has opened more than 100 Confucius Institutes on college and university campuses in the U.S. and are also in more than 500 primary schools, according to the report. Since 2006, according to the subcommittee, China has directly provided more than $158 million to U.S. schools for Confucius Institutes. Investigators said they found no evidence of espionage at the institutes as their investigation, they said, focused on propaganda and influence.
“That level of access can stifle academic freedom and provide students and others exposed to Confucius Institute programming with an incomplete picture of Chinese government actions and policies that run counter to U.S. interests at home and abroad,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the subcommittee’s chairman.
“Given what our country experienced during the 2016 election and what we’re preparing to grapple with in 2020, it is critical that we be vigilant in combatting foreign efforts to influence American public opinion,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the subcommittee’s senior Democrat.
Confucius Institutes and the schools that host them say they’re a resource to help Americans learn about Chinese language and culture in an increasingly interconnected world. As China’s economy and influence grows, there’s a greater demand for those who speak Chinese languages and understand China’s culture.
“Just as Confucius is perhaps one of the best-known teachers throughout history, the institutes named after him are recognized for promoting knowledge, understanding, and thus friendship across the globe,” said a statement on the website of the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, the first institute established in the U.S. when it opened in 2004.
Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report detailing a case study of 10 schools’ Confucius Institutes. It found, “All Confucius Institute directors were U.S. school employees who felt they–not China–had control of the institute.”
However, the subcommittee report cites reported Chinese government statements acknowledging their propaganda value to address criticism over human rights, Taiwan and individual freedom.
“We’re not against cultural exchange or language learning outright. We do view and recognize the value in this globalized world of cultural exchange, of foreign exchange, of language learning,” said a subcommittee investigator. “There are concerns schools need to be aware about how these things operate. And the public, faculty and students also need to be aware.”
The institutes, the schools they contract with and the Chinese government should reveal the details of their agreements, said the investigator. Without achieving that transparency, the investigator said senators are exploring legislation to address those concerns or would even pursue ways to shut them down.
In its study, the GAO found, “While 42 of 90 agreements include language indicating that the document was confidential, some agreements were available online or are shared upon request. Some officials at schools that did not post agreements online said this was consistent with handling of other agreements.” The report also read, “Nonetheless, school officials, researchers, and others suggested ways schools could improve institute management, such as by renegotiating agreements to clarify U.S. schools' authority and making agreements publicly available.”
Last year, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sponsored a provision included in the National Defense Authorization Act that prohibits Pentagon funding of Confucius Institutes. He’s also pushed a bill that would lower the threshold for universities reporting foreign contributions from $250,000 to $50,000.
The subcommittee investigation found that nearly 70 percent of U.S. schools that received more than $250,000 from the Chinese government for Confucius Institutes failed to properly report those contributions to the federal government.
In 2010, the State Department granted more than $5 million to create American cultural events on Chinese campuses.
The department’s inspector general determined the U.S. effort was “'largely ineffective' in its mission due to Chinese interference” and closed the program late last year, according to the report.
“As China has expanded Confucius Institutes here in the U.S., it has systematically shut down key U.S. State Department public diplomacy efforts on Chinese college campuses,” said Senator Portman.
While there are more Confucius Institutes in the U.S. than any other country, the Chinese government has spent more than $2 billion expanding them across the world, according to the subcommittee.
“They show no signs of slowing,” said an investigator.