Push for transparency on campus Confucius Institutes

Pressure on universities to re-examine their partnerships with Confucius Institutes and whether they are allowing undue Chinese government influence on campus has been raised by the introduction of legislation in both the United States House of Representatives and the US Senate, aimed at curbing the political influence of foreign institutes and organisations on college campuses by requiring greater transparency.

The companion bills were introduced by Representative Joe Wilson in the House, and jointly by Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Tom Cotton in the Senate on 21 March. Although the bills do not mention the Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes, which operate on more than 100 American college campuses, both Wilson and Rubio made it clear that these were the prime intended target.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Act of 2018 requires organisations to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) if they promote the propaganda of a foreign country’s government.

“The goal of this legislation is to increase transparency between foreign governments, universities, and communities,” said Congressman Wilson representing 2nd District, South Carolina, after introducing the bill to the House of Representatives.

He said: “With the enactment of the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, organisations like the Confucius Institute will no longer be able to use the lack of clarity in FARA to disseminate propaganda.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Florida), who introduced the legislation in the Senate, said: “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 including several in Florida, would be required to register with the Department of Justice as foreign agents of the Chinese government.”

According to Wilson the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 contains a technicality that allows foreign governments or organisations to push their political agenda “under the façade” of an “academic or scholastic pursuit,” but the American people “have the right to know if they are consuming propaganda that is being produced by a foreign government”.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Act will clarify the intent of FARA and require disclaimers on all propaganda funded by foreign governments to promote their political agenda.

This legislation also amends the Higher Education Act to require universities to disclose donations, contracts or the fair market value of in-kind gifts, from any foreign source if the amount is US$50,000 or greater. This information would be reported to the secretary of education, along with the content of contracts between universities and foreign entities.

It is three years since the American Association of University Professors called on US universities to uphold the principles of academic freedom by either terminating their relationship with the Confucius Institutes or renegotiating their agreements with them.

It highlighted the difference between the Chinese approach, and that of vehicles of soft power of other nations such as the British Council, the Goethe-Institut and the Alliance Française, which are not located on campuses and have national mandates that require them to be sited where they can fulfil their mandate openly without threatening the independence and integrity of academic institutions in host countries.

Last year the conservative National Association of Scholars (NAS) raised more concerns about the Confucius Institutes, describing them as “outposts of the Chinese government’s overseas propaganda efforts”.

Its report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, found that Confucius Institutes undermine intellectual freedom and threaten the integrity of higher education. It said they teach a whitewashed version of Chinese history and pressure American scholars to self-censor research topics that offend the Chinese government.

Rachelle Peterson, NAS policy director and author of its report, told University World News last week that there is a growing bipartisan coalition in both the House and the Senate taking a close look at Confucius Institutes.

“Senator Rubio and Representative Wilson's bill is an important step toward enacting legislation that will address the Chinese government's efforts to infiltrate American colleges and universities. Should the Foreign Influence Transparency Act become law, it would send a strong signal to colleges and universities that Confucius Institutes engage in subversive activity,” she said.

“While colleges and universities would remain free to host Confucius Institutes if they choose, the public would be aware that these universities knowingly host centres sponsored by an authoritarian government known to use its Confucius Institutes to advance its own political agenda.”

NAS has called on all colleges and universities to close their Confucius Institutes immediately.

’Free of Chinese control’

However, a number of senior academics involved in partnerships with Confucius Institutes have spoken out in recent weeks, refuting claims that they are propaganda tools on campus.

Paul B Bell Jr, dean emeritus at the College of Arts and Sciences and regents’ professor at the University of Oklahoma, who is a member of the university’s Confucius Institute’s board of directors, said in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education on 28 March that “rather than being a pernicious influence, Confucius Insitutes are a true partnership between American educational institutions and Chinese universities”.

He said the US host institution hires its own local staff and the Chinese partner provides an associate director and several teachers, but the content of the curriculum is “fully under the control of the American school at which classes are taught, not the Chinese government”.

He said the Oklahoma University Confucius Institute follows the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry and it is a “red herring to suggest that our teachers are trying to indoctrinate Americans to support China” because they are teaching classes in Mandarin and Chinese culture, rarely getting asked about political issues, and if asked are “free to say what they think”.

Similarly, Daniel L Julius, provost and senior vice president at New Jersey City University, also in a letter to The Chronicle, said on 24 March that at the Confucius Institute at his university, the Chinese instructors “are not political operatives or lobbyists who influence university decisions” and in this case, despite fully understanding the geopolitical and economic competition between the US and China worldwide, are “providing resources that benefit our students, faculty and communities”.

He accused NAS of allowing themselves to be “spokespersons for those who would further isolate the US from world affairs and in the process deny our students meaningful learning experiences”.

’Oversight needed’

However, Peterson told UWN that the institutes have been the site of “numerous reported violations of intellectual freedom” and host universities have “convinced themselves that they can manage the risks of engaging in such a close relationship with the Chinese government”.

She said: “The Foreign Influence Transparency Act alerts colleges and universities that the federal government finds evidence that they are not, in fact, managing those risks well, and that additional oversight is needed. I hope the bill will deter college presidents from renewing Confucius Institute contracts or opening new Confucius Institutes.”

The FIT Act includes two changes proposed by the NAS. It would amend the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law that requires agents of foreign governments and political parties to register with the Department of Justice. According to NAS, a loophole in the law currently permits foreign governments to disseminate propaganda under the guise of an ‘educational’ or ‘scholastic’ organisation.

This bill would clarify that educational and scholastic organisations would be exempt “only if the activities do not promote the political agenda of a government of a foreign country”.

Disclosure of gifts and terms

The bill would also amend the Higher Education Act, which currently requires colleges and universities to disclose gifts of US$250,000 or more in a calendar year from a foreign donor. NAS has called on Congress to lower the threshold to US$50,000 and clarify that the fair market value of in-kind gifts should count toward that total.

Senator Rubio and Senator Cotton’s version of the bill does that, but Representative Wilson’s bill would require disclosure of any single gift or contract totalling US$50,000.

NAS fears the Wilson version could create a loophole via which the Chinese government could fund Confucius Institutes in instalments of US$49,000 without triggering the disclosure mechanism.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Act would also require colleges and universities to disclose the text of any contracts that pertain to gifts that are disclosed to the Department of Education.

This was welcomed by NAS, which said its own research had shown that Confucius Institute contracts “frequently had alarming clauses that required the contract to be kept secret, pledged adherence to Chinese law, and gave an agency of the Chinese government authority to vet all curriculum and course plans”.

“It is important for Americans to see the troubling contracts that American universities have agreed to sign with the Chinese government,” NAS said.