On July 17, 2020, Attorney-General William Barr gave a speech about the Chinese threat at the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Attorney-General’s choice of location was ironic, in that Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was the architect of the existing U.S-China relationship.
Mr. Barr did not mince words in exposing the gravity of the situation. “[T]he PRD’s [People’s Republic of China’s] predatory economic policies are succeeding. For a hundred years, America was the world’s largest manufacturer – allowing us to serve as the world’s ‘arsenal of democracy.’ China overtook the United States in manufacturing output in 2010. The PRC is now the world’s ‘arsenal of dictatorship.’”
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The Attorney-General mentioned one Chinese entity in particular. “The Chinese Communist Party also seeks to infiltrate, censor, or co-opt American academic and research institutions. For example, dozens of American universities host Chinese government-funded ‘Confucius Institutes’ which have been accused of pressuring host universities to silence discussion or cancel events on topics considered controversial by Beijing.” (Emphasis added.)
A Dog in the Manger?
Leftist university professors might dismiss such comments as anti-Asian racism. They might be surprised to find that Chinese Communists admit that the Attorney-General was accurate. Politico quotes a speech made by Li Changchun to the Chinese Politburo in 2011.
“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
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To outsiders, the Confucius Institute presents a far more co-operative image on its website.
“The Confucius Institute U.S. Center is a (501)(c)(3) nonprofit organization who promotes the value of global education. We support the teaching and learning of Chinese language and culture in the United States and enable people-to-people exchanges, deepening cross-cultural understanding and language development.” In words guaranteed to warm the hearts of utopian leftists, they continue, “By elevating the stories and impact of Confucius Institutes across the country, we amplify the unique voices of our students and help spread the message of the value of global education beyond the boundaries of college campuses.” (Emphasis in the original.)
The webpage for the Confucius Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is more specific. “The institute teaches Mandarin at all skill levels through group classes and customized private instruction. The institute offers a variety of cultural programming throughout the year including art performances, lecturers, Chinese traditional holiday celebrations and panels focused on current events. Members of the D.C. community can gain exposure to the Chinese culture without traveling abroad. The GW Confucius Institute also serves as the resource and support center for GW faculty and students whose academic interests focus on China.”
Among other programs, the GWU Institute hosted a Chinese Conversation Corner, a Lunar New Year Celebration at the Kennedy Center, “Dumpling Night,” and presentations at local middle schools. The photos feature Chinese art pieces, dancers and lots of smiling faces.
The Universities Profit
Since President Nixon’s trip to China in 1971, the U.S. government has promoted closer ties between Chinese and American academics. Three lines of thinking supported this attitude. Many American leaders held the naïve and mistaken idea that closer contact would foster the ‘liberalization” of China. Presidents Nixon and Ford – aided by Henry Kissinger – believed closer Sino-American ties would threaten the Soviet Union. Finally, they thought China did not present an economic threat since the nation was barely able to feed itself at the time.
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All these global assumptions have now changed. However, the universities’ openness to Chinese communism has not changed. On all too many campuses, a kind of soft-communism rules. That atmosphere is an ideal hothouse for the work of the Confucius Institute.
The universities also reap economic benefits by hosting the Confucius Institutes. A Politico article presents it as a simple business decision, “They’re kind of like restaurant franchises: Open the kit, and you’re in business. American universities can continue to collect full tuition from their students while essentially outsourcing instruction in Chinese…. [I]t’s free money for the schools.”
Questions and Criticisms
In 2017, The National Association of Scholars (NAS) released Outsourced to China, a report that focused on the Confucius Institutes. The 184-page report makes a strong case for keeping watchful eyes on their activities.
The NAS found four areas of concern.
- Intellectual freedom. Confucius Institutes follow Chinese law, including speech codes. Teachers paid by the Chinese are expected to avoid sensitive topics.
- Transparency. Details about contracts and hiring policies are mostly unavailable. Some universities went to extraordinary efforts to avoid scrutiny, canceling meetings and forbidding the NAS from visiting campus.
- Entanglement. Confucius Institutes are scrutinized by the Chinese government. Universities have an economic incentive not to criticize Chinese policies.
- Soft Power. China and Chinese culture are shown in a positive light. They avoid political history, especially human rights abuses. They do not report on the status of Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong.
U.S. Government Investigation
The Chinese government is also using the Institutes to enter into American university research programs and resources. In 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray informed the Senate Intelligence Committee of these activities.
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“I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors [of information], especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that 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. I think the level of naiveté 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.
“We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes. We’ve been watching that development for a while. It’s just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we are watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps.”
Because of this government scrutiny, some universities are closing their Confucius Institutes. These include the University of Arizona, the University of California – Davis, the University of Missouri, and the University of Oklahoma.
Such closings do not mean that the Chinese Communists are losing interest in American universities. They have profited too much over the last fifty years to stop now. If the Confucius Institutes fade away under the spotlight, something else will come along to take its place. Continued scrutiny of China’s attempts to insinuate itself into American universities and businesses is vital – and the time is now.