China’s Confucius Institutes, which operate at universities in the United States and in many other countries around the world, are funded “with strings attached that can compromise academic freedom”, attempt to export China’s censorship, and are often lacking in transparency, a report by a US Senate committee has said.
It recommends that unless there is “full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for US cultural outreach efforts on college campuses in China”, those operating in the US should be closed.
If the institutes are not shut down, the US Justice Department should consider requiring the teachers, who are selected by the Chinese government, to register in the US as ‘foreign agents’, it said.
It is alleged that institutes are being used to influence the public and US policy. However, the report found no evidence linking them with Chinese espionage.
More than 90 US universities host the institutes, ostensibly to promote the study of Chinese language and culture, with funding provided by China.
Since 2016 some US$158 million has been directly channelled to US universities by China for the hosting of Confucius Institutes, according to the Senate report released this week.
A separate report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), also released this week, reviewed some 90 written contracts between US universities and the Chinese government agency, Hanban, which administers Confucius Institutes. The GAO report also raised transparency concerns, concluding that “the presence of an institute could constrain campus activities and classroom content”.
The Senate’s bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations said in its report, released on 27 February after an eight-month investigation, that the institutes attempt to export China’s censorship.
Chinese teachers at the institutes sign contracts with the Chinese government pledging not to damage the national interests of China, the report notes.
“Such limitations attempt to export China’s censorship of political debate and prevent discussion of potentially politically sensitive topics,” the report says. “Indeed, US school officials told the subcommittee that Confucius Institutes were not the place to discuss controversial topics … As one US school administrator explained to the subcommittee, when something is ‘funded by the Chinese government, you know what you’re getting’.”
Another US university administrator told the subcommittee that while their Confucius Institute hosted a wide range of events, they still had to “get permission” from Hanban for all events.
Confucius Institutes are ‘political in nature’
The Senate subcommittee cited an October letter from Republican Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley to the US attorney general saying the activities of the institutes “show that they are inherently political in nature and intended to influence US policy and public opinion”, which he said falls squarely within the scope of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The act requires disclosure of agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a political or quasi-political capacity.
The Grassley letter notes that the “Chinese government approves all teachers, events and speakers”. Some US colleges and universities “contractually agree that both Chinese and US laws will apply”.
However, the report said there was no evidence that connects Confucius Institutes with Chinese espionage – a concern that has recently led to increased monitoring by the US administration of Confucius Institutes at US universities. Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said last year the FBI was watching Confucius Institutes “warily”.
Lack of transparency
Pointing to lack of transparency, the report noted that six of the 15 contracts reviewed by the subcommittee contained clauses limiting public disclosure of the agreement between the US university and Hanban.
The committee also accused higher education institutions of covering up their Chinese government funding.
“Nearly 70% of US schools with a Confucius Institute that received more than US$250,000 in one year failed to properly report that information to the Department of Education,” the report says, and recommends that the education and justice departments “should conduct oversight and pursue appropriate action against any US schools that wilfully fail to comply with reporting requirements.”
The report also says that Hanban provides “no information to US schools on how candidates for Chinese director and teacher positions at Confucius Institutes are screened or selected in China” and that US colleges are therefore unable to judge if these practices are in accordance with their own hiring practices.
It criticises the amount of Chinese control. “The Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at US schools,” down to having veto authority over events and activities included in the annual budget submitted for approval to Hanban.
Some contracts between US universities and Hanban prohibit public disclosure of the contracts and include a provision stating that both Chinese and US law apply to the institute. “When one US school refused to include a provision requiring adherence to Chinese law, Hanban officials cancelled the entire contract,” the report states.
The more even-handed GAO report on US universities’ contracts with Hanban, which had been requested by a number of members of the US Congress, also reported several incidents of concern regarding academic freedom but highlighted that in at least 10 US universities, the university and not China had full control and that most US university administrators said they did not have concerns about Confucius Institute operations at their institution.
Pointing to universities that had academic freedom concerns, GAO investigators interviewed several university officials, researchers and others who “expressed concerns that hosting a Confucius Institute could limit events or activities critical of China – including events at the Confucius Institute and elsewhere on campus.”
Several university officials interviewed by GAO also expressed concern or uncertainty about whether a Confucius Institute would sponsor a research project or organise an event on a topic that could include criticism of China.
But on the flip side it noted that several university administrators also indicated that the Dalai Lama had visited their schools while they had a Confucius Institute – despite Tibet being seen as a sensitive and often censored topic in China.
While the visits were not hosted by Confucius Institutes, according to the administrators, Hanban did not object to the Dalai Lama’s visits.
GAO also raised transparency issues. “Of the 90 agreements we reviewed, 42 contained language about the agreement being confidential or language regarding the ability of either party to the agreement to share or release the agreement or other information,” it said.
More than a dozen US universities have closed their Confucius Institutes since late 2017, while others are reviewing the relationship after the US administration flagged stricter policies towards China’s “interference” on US campuses.
A document released by the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee on 23 February on modernising China’s education system stated that the Confucius Institutes would remain a key government policy, despite universities in Europe and the US terminating campus agreements in recent years.
A report by China’s official news agency Xinhua, on Wednesday, in its headline report on the GAO findings, said doubts against Confucius Institutes were “largely unfounded” and pointed to the GAO report’s interviews with university officials in the US as saying the institutes were perceived as a positive influence.
They had said the institutes “provide valuable resources and opportunities to increase knowledge of and exposure to China and Chinese culture within the school and in the broader community”, it cited the GAO report as saying.
But the Xinhua report also acknowledged some suggestions in the GAO report where Confucius Institutes could improve operations, including standardising and further disclosing the terms of cooperation between the institutes and US universities.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying, quoted by Xinhua, denied allegations that Confucius Institutes interfere with US academic freedom, calling on relevant sides to "abandon prejudice" against the institutes.
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