The ‘Confucius Institutes’ Are Problematic – But How To Deal With Them?


The Chinese government has been trying to spread its power, and one of the tactics it has been using is to influence the education of American college students. How?

Starting in 2004, the Chinese have been sponsoring “Confucius Institutes” at colleges and universities around the world that are willing to host them. The Chinese cover most if not all of the cost of the programs that cover Chinese language, culture, and history. Since many students want to learn about China, that seems like a good deal.

Ah, but there is a catch: The Chinese are not merely interested in helping Americans learn about their language, culture, and history, but want to color their perceptions of the current Chinese regime. With Chinese funding comes Chinese control over who may teach and what may be said. In its 2017 report on these institutes, Outsourced to China, the National Association of Scholars documented many problems with them relating to academic freedom and responsibility. The report states that the Institutes “attract scrutiny because of their close ties to the Chinese government. A stream of stories indicates that intellectual freedom, merit-based hiring policies, and other foundational principles of American higher education have received short shrift in Confucius Institutes.”

One telling example of the way the Confucius Institutes try to slant perceptions and block criticism was the demand made by North Carolina State’s Institute in 2009 that the university rescind the invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak on campus. I included that instance in this piece I wrote for the Martin Center on the NAS report.

Both the NAS and the Martin Center concluded that American schools ought to avoid getting entangled with what amounts to a Chinese government exercise in “soft power.”

Now, at least one U.S. Senator has come to the same conclusion – Marco Rubio. In a letter dated March 12 to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray respectively), Rubio raised a red flag about the Institutes, stating “There is mounting concern, as articulated by senior intelligence officials at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on ‘Worldwide Threats’ 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.”

Very well, but what does Senator Rubio propose?

First, he advocates greater transparency regarding foreign funding of higher educational programs. He advocates amending the Higher Education Act to lower the reporting threshold on reporting foreign funding from $250,000 to $50,000 and having that amount include the fair market value of in-kind gifts and services, since the Confucius Institutes often receive more than $100,000 per year worth of books and instructors paid by the Chinese government. Rubio explains, “It is in the interest of national security and institutional integrity to have information on potentially compromising gifts from foreign governments and agents of foreign governments.”

Second, Rubio wants to make colleges choose between federal funding and Chinese funding. “When a college or university accepts a Confucius Institute,” he writes, “it should become ineligible for a proportional amount of federal funding…. Conditioning a portion of federal money on the closure of a Confucius Institute is an important step toward limiting China’s pernicious influence on college campuses.”

I have long argued that we would be far better off if the federal government had nothing at all to do with education, but as long as we have the Higher Education Act and the leverage of federal aid money, I think we should use them to reduce if not eliminate this unseemly Chinese ploy.



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