EXCLUSIVE: GOP lawmakers are calling on the Department of Education (DOE) to "find censorship-free alternatives" to Confucius Institutes at U.S. college campuses and to specifically look to Taiwan to teach Mandarin language instead of the controversial China-backed cultural centers.
Confucius Institutes, which operate in at least 50 American colleges and universities, have come under increased scrutiny from politicians who have dubbed them a propaganda arm of the Chinese government.
Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., are now leading an effort to expand the new U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative to develop more programs on college campuses to teach the Mandarin language in the hope they can take the place of Confucius Institutes.
Steel and Blackburn wrote the U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about boosting the 2020 U.S.-Taiwan educational partnership, which they say -- unlike the China agreements -- will safeguard academic freedom.
"We urge the Department of Education (DOE) to explore censorship-free alternatives to support the instruction of Mandarin language and Chinese culture, specifically those offered by Taiwan," Steel and Blackburn wrote Cardona in a letter first obtained by Fox News. They were joined by 19 other lawmakers.
The DOE did not immediately respond to Fox News' request for comment. But members of the Biden administration have previously expressed distrust over Confucius Institutes, which receive significant funding from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They were designed to help students outside of China learn languages and culture, but in recent years they have garnered attention for suspected propagandistic agendas, and universities are trying to close them down.
The National Association of Scholars tracked 50 Confucius Institutes in the United States as of March 25 and that includes eight scheduled to shutter in the coming months, including at Stony Brook University, Portland State University, Colorado State University, the University of New Hampshire and Tufts University.
Under tough scrutiny, China has tried to rebrand the institutes by moving their control from the Chinese Ministry of Education to a new Chinese International Education Foundation. But critics aren't buying the shakeup and say it's time to look to Taiwan to fill the demand for Chinese language education.
President Biden’s new CIA director, William Burns, told lawmakers in February he would advise on barring Confucius Institutes from universities.
"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," Burns said.
If passed by the House and signed into law by President Biden, the measure would cut federal funding from universities that host Confucius Institutes unless they regulate all teaching staff hired for the cultural centers and oversee the curriculum.
On Tuesday, Blackburn introduced new legislation called the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act to require public program agreements between universities and China that clearly set boundaries on China's ability to censor political debate and quash academic freedom.
"Beijing will look for any opportunity to gain a foothold in American communities and push propaganda," Blackburn said in a statement. "Confucius Institutes allow Communist China to have leverage over students at American colleges and universities. We cannot allow students to be brainwashed by revisionist history."
The U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative started in 2020 by the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO) signed an agreement on language education cooperation to expand Mandarin and English language instruction opportunities in both the United States and Taiwan.
"The U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative is an exemplary program, for it seeks to increase opportunities for American students to learn Mandarin, while abiding by the U.S. and Taiwan’s shared commitment to academic freedom," the lawmakers wrote to Cardona. "We assess that DOE could expand the U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative to provide a censorship-free alternative to Confucius Institutes."
Fox News' Caitlin McFall contributed to this report.