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senate Bill S. 1701

Should the FBI be Able to Designate Entities as Foreign Intelligence Threats to Higher Education?

Argument in favor

Confucius Institutes are clearly an arm of the Chinese government’s Ministry of Education, and there is evidence that they’re being used as part of the Chinese government’s ambitious espionage campaign against the U.S. As such, they should be labeled as foreign intelligence threats to higher education and appropriately tracked by the FBI and federal government.

Argument opposed

Confucius Institutes help U.S. colleges and universities diversify students’ education with Chinese language and culture instruction that they don’t have the resources to provide on their own. They’re no different from European cultural exchange institutions and treating them like nefarious espionage operations casts undue aspersions on Chinese-Americans.

bill Progress

  • Not enacted
    The President has not signed this bill
  • The house has not voted
  • The senate has not voted
      senate Committees
      Committee on the Judiciary
    IntroducedJune 3rd, 2019

What is Senate Bill S. 1701?

This bill — the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft (SHEET) Act of 2019 — would create a way for the FBI to designate an entity as a “foreign intelligence threat to higher education.” It would then require academic institutions to follow strict reporting and disclosure rules for any financial interactions with designated foreign entities, such as Confucius Institutes that are funded through the Chinese Communist Party’s Ministry of Education.


Chinese instruction in the U.S.; U.S. colleges and universities; efforts to counter Chinese espionage in the U.S.; Confucius Institutes; and the FBI.

Cost of Senate Bill S. 1701

A CBO cost estimate is unavailable.

More Information

In-DepthSen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to counter Chinese espionage efforts and influence operations in American universities

"Thirty years ago, the world watched in horror as tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers mowed down protestors who had assembled in Tiananmen Square to demand freedom from the tyranny of Communism. That tyranny lives on today in forms as open as political violence and as insidious as mass ubiquitous surveillance. Today we remember the bravery of Chinese dissidents all around the world. We must stand with the brave men and women who continue to fight for liberty in China, both to honor the legacy of those who died in the fight and to elevate the cause of those who continue the battle today. As we remember their courage, the U.S. must remain steadfast in protecting our own people. The Communist Party is infiltrating American society to censor free speech and steal sensitive research. Groups like Confucius Institutes, China Student Scholars Association, and the Thousand Talents program threaten the integrity of our universities and research. We must counter these efforts, and I am proud to reintroduce the SHEET Act."

When he introduced this bill in the 115th Congress, Sen. Cruz said

“Communist China is infiltrating American universities to meddle with our curricula, silence criticism of their regime, and steal intellectual property including sensitive dual-use research. The Confucius Institutes are the velvet glove around the iron fist of their campaigns on our campuses. The American government needs new tools to protect the integrity of our universities and research, and to block academic espionage.”

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), who is sponsoring this bill’s House companion, says

“We must stop foreign intelligence from using college exchange programs to steal technology, recruit agents and spread propaganda. Geopolitical adversaries, including China, are infiltrating our universities and stealing intellectual property. Centers like the Confucius Institutes, backed by the Chinese Communist Party, must be held accountable for their malign activities.” 

The National Association of Scholars supports this bill: 

“The Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act would hold foreign agents accountable and help colleges and universities distinguish between innocent and nefarious foreign gifts. The bill would also provide members of Congress and the public with greater transparency surrounding the actions of foreign agents working to infiltrate higher education.”

In February 2018 Congressional testimony, FBI Director Christopher Wray made an unprecedented warning against Confucius Institutes. Nothing that the FBI was “watching warily” and investigating in “certain instances,” Wray said

“The use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office the FBI has around the country. It’s not just in major cities, it’s in small ones as well, it’s across basically every discipline. And I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues… They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it. So one of the things we are trying to do is view the China threat as just not a whole of government threat but a whole of society threat on their end. And I think it’s going to take a whole of society response by us.”

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 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."

Qing reiterated the Confucius Institutes’ apolitical nature in a July 2019 NPR interview. He said, “The Confucius Institute programs are essentially Chinese-language learning centers. [They] do not teach politics. [They] are apolitical.”

Responding to Wray’s testimony about FBI surveillance of Confucius Institutes, Qing argued that it sounded like the agency hadn’t found anything of concern despite monitoring

“If they are watching Confucius Institutes for a while, I’m really curious about what they found out. To me, it sounds to me like they have been watching Confucius Institutes but have found nothing. It should be an educational process for our senators to understand what Confucius Institutes are really about.”

Former Arizona congressman Matt Salmon, now ASU’s vice president for government affairs, argues that those who oppose Confucius Institutes' presence on U.S. college campuses are engaging in “McCarthyism.” Similarly, Patrick Toomey, an ACLU staff attorney, says

“It is wrong to cast an entire group of students, professors, and scientists as a threat to our country based simply on where they come from… The United States has a proud tradition of international academic collaboration, which attracts the best and the brightest to our universities, fosters innovation and ultimately benefits all Americans. The FBI’s mind-set has already led to overzealous investigations of Chinese-Americans, with disastrous consequences for those wrongly tarred with suspicion.”

Democrats warn that making immigrants feel unwelcome through legislation like this one could harm the United States’ long term interests. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) points out, “Foreign-born scientists put Americans on the moon. They worked on the Manhattan Project. Nearly a third of all American Nobel laureates were born outside the United States.” 

Some Democrats also argue that this legislation would lead to racial profiling and stereotyping of Chinese students and academics. Last Congress, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) told HuffPost

“I am very concerned by ongoing efforts to stereotype Chinese students, scholars, and employees as threats to our institutions of higher education. While there is no doubt that we must take national security concerns seriously, it is irresponsible to categorize an entire country of people en masse as spies… This rhetoric feeds into ugly stereotypes that endanger Chinese and Asian American students and scholars… No one should have to live in fear that they’ll be targeted for the crime of being Asian on a college or university campus. There is no room for this sort of prejudice in our country’s laws or practices.”

Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and a member of End National Security Scapegoating, adds

“The proposed bill is a bogus attempt to whip up fear and animosity towards Chinese and Chinese Americans. This form of painting an entire group as spies and an existential threat to American universities and technology is just wrong.”

Rachelle Peterson, policy director at the National Association of Scholars and author of Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American HIgher Education, argues that it isn’t racist to defend U.S. universities against Chinese spies. In an article in the National Review, Peterson writes: 

[I]t is not racist to call out the Chinese government’s record of economic theft and espionage, or to take measures to protect against it. China is estimated to steal up to $600 million annually in intellectual property from the U.S… Colleges and universities, uniquely open and eager for foreign students — of which China is the No. 1 source, with more than 350,000 in the 2016–17 school year — are an especially inviting target. We must distinguish between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, and recognize that criticizing one does not mean denigrating the other… Limiting the influence of the Chinese government may actually be a key way to protect against racism. The Chinese government has long sought to stifle the voices of its own people, pursuing a policy of eradicating minorities in China or “reeducating” them into conformity. The Chinese government’s campaign of developing “sharp power” overseas involves presenting a highly selective, uniform presentation of Chinese culture — whitewashed of all minorities and dissidents. One key example is the Confucius Institutes… Senators Cruz and Rubio and FBI director Wray cited these institutes as examples of the PRC’s nefarious influence, and for good reason. Confucius Institutes present the Chinese regime’s official history, without the Tiananmen Square massacre, the persecution of Christians and Muslims in China, the estimated 1 million Uighurs currently held in reeducation camps, and the Chinese government’s efforts to stamp out Tibetan culture. Is it really racist to oppose programs that perpetuate the Chinese government’s myth that its majority Han ethnicity and loyal Chinese Communist Party members are all that matters in China? The willingness of some Chinese Americans to carry water for Beijing is puzzling. But we have seen that the Chinese government is capable on short notice of assembling a demonstration of Chinese expatriates and ethnic Chinese who are willing to endorse the Communist Party’s official positions on any given issue. The attacks on the Cruz and Wray and all who call out China’s abuses should probably be understood in that spirit. It’s time to call China’s overseas influence campaign to account.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is this bill’s sole Senate cosponsor in the 116th Congress. The House companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), has eight Republican House cosponsors. As of August 8, 2019, neither bill had received a committee vote.

This bill didn’t have any Senate cosponsors and didn’t receive a committee vote in the 115th Congress. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Rooney, had seven Republican House cosponsors and also didn’t receive a committee vote.

Of NoteAmerican politicians, China analysts and the national security community are in broad agreement that China is waging a massive spying campaign against the U.S., with targets including classified government and military secrets, high tech companies and university research. Some observers contend that Confucius Institutes, which have existed for over 10 years as centers of Chinese language and cultural teaching, could be used to recruit spies in the U.S. and keep close tabs on Chinese students studying in the U.S.

Confucius Institutes are funded and staffed in part by instructors screened by a Chinese government entity known as “Hanban,” which is part of the Chinese Ministry of Education. 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.”

While public examples of espionage at U.S. universities due to their relationships with Confucius Institutes are hard to come by, journalist Daniel Golden, author of a book on intelligence collection on American campuses, notes that the risk Confucius Institutes pose is real. Pointing out that Confucius Institute faculty are chosen by the Communist Party and subject to government pressure, Golden argues that Confucius Institutes give the Chinese government intelligence-gathering opportunities that the U.S. isn’t prepared to counter

However, Jim Lewis, senior vice president and program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells HuffPost he disagrees with the claim that Confucius Institutes are engaged in espionage. He says, “There is a massive Chinese espionage campaign against the West, but the institutes are more intended to build China’s ‘soft power.’”

Zao Cheng Xu, director of the Confucius Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, told Golden that “Chinese intelligence does see Confucius Institutes as a way to gather information.”

Last year, Sen. Cruz attached an amendment to the John McCain 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to bar U.S. universities from using Pentagon funding for any program involving Confucius Institutes and require any universities with both Pentagon-funded and Chinese government-funded Chinese language programs to secure a waiver from the Pentagon to keep both programs. In the immediate aftermath of the NDAA’s passage, several university officials told The Washington Post that the new waiver process could complicate their next bids for Pentagon funding for Chinese language programs and expressed concerns that the Pentagon might look askance at schools with Confucius Institutes. 

Consequently, from 2018 to July 2019, at least 13 U.S. colleges and universities have closed Confucius Institutes in order to preserve Pentagon funding. The University of Oregon is one of those schools, and its vice provost for global engagement, Dennis Galvan, explained the school’s decision in a July 2019 NPR interview

“It's very clear that faculty were anguished about the choice. They would have much preferred to not have to choose between these two projects that they had created and nourished over more than a decade. So it was a reluctant decision but a pragmatic one in the end.”

At the same time, however, some other schools, such as the University of Nebraska, have kept their Confucius Institutes. Harvey Perlman, who helped set up the University of Nebraska’s Confucius Institute in 2007, says he and other officials at the University of Nebraska remain supportive of the Confucius Institute. He also says they haven’t seen evidence of espionage or interference with the university’s curriculum.


Summary by Lorelei Yang

(Photo Credit: Mark Morgan via Flickr / Creative Commons)


Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2019

Official Title

A bill to address foreign threats to higher education in the United States.

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