In-Depth: Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced this bill to require organizations like the Confucius Institute to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) if they promote a foreign government’s political agenda:
“The goal of this legislation is to increase transparency between foreign governments, universities, and communities. The American people have the right to know if they are consuming propaganda that is being produced by a foreign government… It is critical that the language in the Foreign Agents Registration Act matches its intent, which is to disclose all persons or institutions acting on behalf of foreign governments in a political manner. With the enactment of the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, organizations like the Confucius Institute will no longer be able to use the lack of clarity in FARA to disseminate propaganda.”
Commenting specifically on this legislation’s impact on Confucius Institutes, which are funded by the Chinese government, Rep. Wilson adds:
“I appreciate and support the exchanges [with China], but there needs to be disclosure as to the elements of government involvement in these exchanges. [Confucius Institutes] don’t have to be banned, but they have to be identified so students, parents, and administrators know they are funded by a foreign political party.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who introduced companion legislation in the Senate, added:
“This legislation aims to bring greater transparency to the activities of foreign governments operating in the United States. It will strengthen foreign funding disclosure requirements for colleges and universities and close loopholes in current law so that entities like Confucius Institutes, operating in more than 100 American higher education institutions… would be required to register with the Department of Justice as foreign agents of the Chinese government.”
Various members of Congress, including Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), have made statements or sent letters asking college and universities in their states to cut ties or end relations with Confucius Institutions on their respective campuses. The Trump administration has made pushing for the U.S. to take a harder line in its dealing with China a signature issue of the current administration.
Ben Freeman, director of the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, says this bill addresses “an important issue of language clarification for the FARA statute,” and adds that certain key portions of the statute are currently vague, causing “a lot of confusion for transparency groups and also for people who think they might have to register but aren’t sure.”
The American Association of University Professors, which advocates for U.S. universities to uphold the principles of academic freedom by either terminating or re-negotiating their relationships with Confucius Institutes, noted in a June 2014 report that Confucius Institutes are clearly meant to operate as arms of the Chinese government’s soft power expansion around the world:
“Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom. Their academic activities are under the supervision of Hanban, a Chinese state agency which is chaired by a member of the Politburo and the vice-premier of the People’s Republic of China. Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China. Specifically, North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”
University of Chicago professor Marshall Sahlins has called Confucius Institutes “academic malware” due to their representation or illiberal views of education and academic freedom. In 2018, Politico wrote:
“Confucius Institutes teach a very particular, Beijing-approved version of Chinese culture and history: one that ignores concerns over human rights, for example, and teaches that Taiwan and Tibet indisputably belong to Mainland China.. Critics also charge that the centers have led to a climate of self-censorship on campuses that play host to them.”
The self-censorship effect that Confucius Institutes may have on host universities is documented both domestically and abroad. In 2008, a Israeli court found that Tel Aviv University had illegitimately closed an art exhibition on Falun Gong due to Chinese government pressure. In 2009, North Carolina State University scuttled a planned appearance by the Dalai Lama after the Confucius Institute’s director warned university officials that such a visit could hurt “strong relationships… with China.” A few years later, similar events transpired at the University of Sydney in Australia, drawing heat from members of the Australian Parliament.
However, other universities with Confucius Institutes have continued to host events that run against the Chinese government’s political interests. For example, in 2009, the Confucius Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland promoted a talk by a dissident Chinese author whose works are banned in China.
Peg Barratt, founding director of The George Washington University’s Confucius Institute, says her university’s “eyes were open” when GW opened its center in 2013. While Barratt acknowledges that “some [other universities] had internal censorship,” she argues that the Institutes are innocuous, modeled on European cultural institutes like the British Council, Goethe Institute, and Alliance Françise.
Nancy Gutierrez, at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which is slated to host a new Institute in the future, argues that Institutes fulfill an unmet need, and host universities can ensure they don’t affect academic freedom:
“We made the decision to host a [Confucius Institute] because we believe that this partnership will allow us to expand understanding of Chinese culture very broadly—for community members and for our students… A faculty advisory committee will provide the intellectual guidance … ensuring that we are guided by principles of academic freedom.”
The University of Chicago and Penn State University are two of the few universities that have closed Confucius Institutes after opening them on campus. Bruce Lincoln, a now-retired religion professor at UChicago when then served on the faculty senate, called the Confucius Institute a “subcontracting [of the] educational mission” and a “hostile takeover of U.S. higher education by a foreign power” and led a petition drive that demanded the cancellation of the Institute’s contract in 2014. Ultimately, UChicago ended its relationship with the Institute over academic freedom concerns.
For its part, the Chinese government argues that Confucius Institutes are fully compliant with universities’ policies, and transparent about their operations. Gao Qing, executive director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington, says the Confucius Institutes are essentially grant programs, and that they pose no threat to intellectual or academic freedom:
“To me, the best way to explain the Confucius Institute, it’s simply a grant program. We apply for a grant from China, from the headquarters, and that grant also provides us a partnership with a Chinese university… In terms of the intellectual freedom or academic freedom, I think that’s something that we have to always pay attention to, to make sure that these programs do not interfere with academic freedom. When we receive individuals from China, the very first day we will have orientation. The very first message we deliver is to make sure everybody understands the value of academic freedom and freedom of speech. What we’ve found here is there's no such evidence whatsoever from the very first Confucius Institute opening in the United States until today that any individual case can prove that Confucius Institutes interfered with academic freedom. This has no factual basis."
This bill has the support of five cosponsors, all of whom are Republicans.
Of Note: FARA, a Nazi-era law intended to combat foreign propaganda, requires organizations and individuals engaged in lobbying or public discourse on behalf of a foreign government to register with the Department of Justice and disclose their funding and the scope of their activities. It currently contains an exemption for “bona fide academic or scholastic pursuits,” but does not clearly spell out what “bona fide” entails. Confucius Institutes, which are affiliated with a branch of the Chinese government’s Ministry of Education known as Hanban, would be affected by a definition of “bona fide academic or scholastic pursuits” that limits out foreign government-funded pursuits from FARA exemption.
Confucius Institutes, which have existed for over 10 years, are centers of Chinese language and cultural teaching funded and staffed in part by instructors screened by a Chinese government entity known as “Hanban.” In addition to language instruction, these Institutes offer cultural events programming, calligraphy, and Tai Chi.
Confucius Institutes on college campuses number over 500 globally, with over 100 in the U.S. at colleges such as The George Washington University, University of Michigan, and University of Iowa. There are also Confucius Classrooms in primary and secondary schools. The Chicago public school system, for example, has outsourced its entire Chinese language program to Confucius Classrooms.
In 2009, Li Changchun, then head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, called the Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” At a speech at the Confucius Institute’s Beijing headquarters in 2011, Li added:
“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending [Chinese] culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving [China’s] soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: Mark Morgan via Flickr / Creative Commons)