RALEIGH — Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) has cosponsored a bill targeting the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on college campuses and free speech in higher education.
On Mar. 4, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States (CONFUCIUS) Act. The bill gives “full managerial authority” to colleges and universities over Confucius Institutes operating on their campuses.
“Confucius Institutes are an echo chamber for the Chinese Communist Party and threaten free speech in American colleges and universities,” Tillis said in a statement. “I’m proud the Senate passed this legislation, which gives universities authority over the Confucius Institutes on their campuses. I hope the House chooses to protect freedom of thought on college campuses and joins us in passing the CONFUCIUS Act.”
The bill was introduced by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) and co-sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Roger Marshall (R-KS).
Under the CONFUCIUS Act, Confucius Institutes are required to protect academic freedom and are prohibited from applying foreign law on campuses. It would also grant total control to their host university over what the Confucius Institute teaches, the grants it awards, the people it employs and what it teaches. Additionally, the bill would block federal funding to colleges and universities that host Confucius Institutes for not complying with these requirements.
Cited by Tillis’ statement is a rare piece of bipartisanship between the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America. The two groups issued a joint letter in May 2020 that called for the “immediate and permanent closure of all Confucius Institutes in the United States.” The letter said the groups have “concerns over the present state of academic freedom.”
The Chinese government has been running Confucius Institutes in the U.S. since 2004. They offered Chinese language courses which either whitewash or omit entirely the history of human rights abuses the Chinese government.
Several high-profile arrests of academic scholars, researchers and those in certain businesses by the U.S. Department of Justice has underscored that Confucius Institutes have long been suspected of being recruitment and infiltration points for stealing of research, intellectual property and spying.
Confucius Institutes are operated by an entity called the Hanban, which is run and financed by Communist China’s Ministry of Education. It is the Hanban that decides who teaches the institute’s courses and how and if they are paid. That would change under the CONFUCIUS Act.
The passage of CONFUCIUS Act comes after President Joe Biden revoked a Trump Administration policy requiring disclosure of all financial transactions, contracts, partnerships with foreign exchange programs, and in particular Confucius Institutes, by all levels of academic institutions from K-12 through post-secondary institutions.
President Trump’s policy was ushered through on Dec. 31, 2020. It was formally titled “Establishing Requirement for Student and Exchange Visitor Program Certified Schools to Disclose Agreements with Confucius Institutes and Classrooms.”
According to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Biden revoked the measure on Jan. 26 — just one week after taking office. The following week, Biden announced a new Pentagon task force, which he claimed would “chart a strong path forward on China-related matters.”
Confucius Institutes were officially declared a “foreign mission” of the People’s Republic of China by former secretary of State Mike Pompeo in August of 2020. Pompeo went on to give speeches in the months that followed that were highly critical of the Communist Party of China and of Confucius Institutes on American campuses.
“Americans must know how the CCP is poisoning the well of our higher education for its own ends, and how those actions degrade our freedoms and our national security. If we don’t educate ourselves, we’ll get schooled by Beijing,” said Pompeo, according to the Associated Press. “They know that left-leaning college campuses are rife with anti-Americanism and present easy target audiences for their anti-American messaging.”
This past January, Pompeo also raised the issue of China’s treatment of the Uighur ethnic group, calling China’s actions an “ongoing genocide.”
Around 55 Confucius Institutes are currently operating in the United States, according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS). That’s down from the 81 according to NAS’s 2017 report, “Outsourced to China.”
Forty-eight Confucius Institutes are located on college campuses, one of which was located on the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus. North State Journal investigated the UNC Charlotte Confucius Institute in June of 2020, and a campus spokesperson said the Hanban provided “start-up expenses of $150,000” in 2017 along with $70,000 in operating support and an “additional $30,000 to support K-12 schools directly.” According to the school’s related website, the Confucius Institute at UNC Charlotte closed down its work on December 31, 2020, and transitioned “its activities to the Department of Languages and Culture Studies and the Office of International Programs.”
North Carolina State University had previously operated a Confucius Institute but closed it down in 2019. The Hanban had been funding the institute on that campus at around $200,000 a year.
A 2019 staff report to the Subcommittee on Investigations for the U.S. Senate found the Chinese government wasn’t just investing in colleges, but also in K-12 classrooms. The report said that since 2006, “China directly provided over $158 million in funding to U.S. schools for Confucius Institutes,” and the Hanban “spent more than $2 billion on Confucius Institutes worldwide from 2008 to 2016.”
Starting in 2017, the Hanban “no longer reports spending on the program,” but by then the Hanban had established 1,113 Confucius classrooms in K-12 schools. Dozens of such schools are currently operating in North Carolina, including several in Wake County and over a half dozen in Buncombe County.
The online version of this story has been updated to reflect the closure of UNC Charlotte’s Confucius Institute on Dec. 31, 2020.