China’s Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture in many countries, are again in the spotlight, following a February 8 article in the U.S. conservative website The National Pulse entitled “Biden Quietly Revokes Trump’s Ban On Chinese Communist Propaganda In Schools.” The misleading headline fueled outrage among conservative news outlets and right-wing pundits, many of whom believe China’s Confucius Institutes censure information and promote propaganda — and who often accuse Biden of being soft on China.
The headline is notably inconsistent with the article, given there never was a “ban” by Trump on the operations of Confucius Institutes in the United States. The author instead refers to a proposal, just weeks before Biden’s inauguration, for colleges and K-12 schools to disclose any contracts, partnerships, or financial transactions with Confucius Institutes.
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price sought to clarify the controversy on February 11, stating the requirement had automatically been withdrawn, as all regulatory processes under review are prior to any change in administration. While Price advised the rule “would need to be resubmitted,” the whole seemingly trivial affair begs the larger question — does the United States need Confucius Institutes?
The Soft Power of Confucius
Named after the ancient Chinese philosopher, the institutes purport to put forth some of the same principles Confucius is famous for — those of honesty, righteousness, and morality.
The institutes are a creature of China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), a far-reaching propaganda machine that has been widely criticized for ensuring the institutes remain faithful to a false narrative that suits the Chinese Communist Party.
The Confucius Institute Headquarters, or Hanban, was founded in 2004 by former Chinese vice premier and Politburo member Liu Yandong, while she was the head of UFWD, to establish “non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries.” There are 541 institutes and nearly 2,000 Confucius classrooms operating in 162 countries at the primary, secondary, and university levels. Hanban provides teachers, textbooks, and operating funds, but the institutes depend on matching resources from the host institutions. From 2008 to 2016, Hanban reported spending more than $2 billion on Confucius Institutes worldwide. Starting in 2017 Hanban no longer reports spending on the program.
In the United States, the operations of Confucius Institutes have come under greater scrutiny in recent years, starting from a report in 2014 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which urged colleges to either negotiate their relationships to ensure academic freedom or shut down their institutes. Another report by the National Association of Scholars in 2017 revealed how the Chinese government infiltrates American colleges and universities to enhance its image. And in 2019, FBI director Christopher Wray testified to the U.S. Congress that the institutes “offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom.” The criticism has led to the closure of 27 percent of the institutes in the United States since 2017, with a total of 75 Confucius Institutes remaining at U.S. colleges and universities, and some 500 Confucius classrooms in K-12 schools.
More specifically, the accusations range from interfering in the recruitment of teachers, determining curriculum, organizing protests, and choosing texts that distort history (especially related to the three T’s of Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Tibet). Critics also charge the institutes with pressuring universities to cancel conferences on Taiwan and visits by the Dalai Lama. The institutes have also been accused of monitoring and threatening Chinese studying abroad who stray from Beijing’s favored narrative.
Over the years, these concerns have led to the closure of Confucius Institutes not only in the U.S., but in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden — while requiring greater restrictions and scrutiny over those institutes allowed to continue their operations.
Confucius Institutes Under the Trump Administration
During the previous Trump administration, the Chinese Communist Party became public enemy number one — resulting in over 200 measures targeting the Chinese government, including Confucius Institutes.
Last October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos both sent out letters to universities and state education officials advising them to “take action to safeguard your educational environments.” The letters cite the dangers of Hong Kong’s National Security Law passed in June, which has made it easier for Beijing to punish its critics. Last year, one Chinese student was jailed in Wuhan after posting critical comments on Twitter while studying at the University of Minnesota — despite Twitter being banned in China.
The letters followed a State Department directive in August requiring the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington to register as a “foreign mission” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The institutes are now prohibited from exerting influence over host schools and are required to report foreign gifts to universities of over $50,000. A 2019 report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that 69 percent of U.S. schools failed to report Hanban gifts, contracts, or contributions above $250,000, as required. While the letters did not call for the closure of Confucius Institutes on campus, then-Secretary of State Pompeo argued in 2020 he was “hopeful we will get them all closed out before the end of this year.”
Will the Biden Administration be Tough on Confucius Institutes?
Several pieces of legislation addressing the influence of Confucius Institutes in the U.S. have been put forth in recent years, including the painstakingly-named “Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States Act” or Confucius Act, a bill sponsored by Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, which passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate last June. The bill prohibits educational institutions from receiving federal funding from the Department of Education unless the institution includes clear provisions that:
(1) protect academic freedom at the institution;
(2) prohibit the application of any foreign law on any campus of the institution; and
(3) grant full managerial authority of the Confucius Institute to the institution, including full control over what is being taught, the activities carried out, the research grants that are made, and who is employed at the Confucius Institute.
Support for similar anti-CCP legislation from Congress will likely continue, and Biden will find it politically difficult to veto any legislation that has high levels of support from both Republicans and Democrats.
Yet from a practical standpoint, it may be far simpler to close the institutes than attempt further regulation. The teaching of Chinese culture will remain important, however, and many students will still strive to learn Mandarin with or without Confucius Institutes.
Filling the Knowledge Gap With Domestic Programs
Greater funding for domestic Chinese culture and language courses, such as those taught under the National Security Education Program (NSEP), could help offset the closure of Confucius Institutes. The NSEP, a U.S. Department of Defense initiative, uses scholarships, fellowships, and grants to attract American undergraduate and graduate students into national security positions.
For those students interested in China, coursework includes not only language training in Mandarin but can include courses in the economy, ethnography, geography, history, literature, and music of China.
Until last August, the Defense Department was funding these programs at institutions that also hosted Confucius Institutes. Under Section 1062 of the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), limitations have been placed on the provision of funds to institutions of higher education hosting Confucius Institutes.
A Wider Path Forward
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a government-sponsored cultural institute assuming the important task of teaching the language, culture, and values of their nation to others (and there are many other examples: Alliance Francaise, American Centers, the British Council, the Goethe Institute, etc.). But should any institute censor certain information or distort history for geopolitical gain, host nations should either require changes or terminate their operation.
Any actions taken by the new Congress to further regulate Confucius Institutes will no doubt appeal to the two-thirds of U.S. voters holding a negative view of China. But the inherent difficulties in effectively regulating the remaining 75 Confucius Institutes and 500 Confucius classrooms argue for more funding for the NSEP and for the expansion of other home-grown, fact-based alternatives.
Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. A former diplomat with the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, he has contributed a number of op-eds for Al Jazeera, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, The Diplomat, and the South China Morning Post. After six years in Shanghai and five years in Ho Chi Minh City, he is now based in Taipei, Taiwan.