China Power

The Rise and Fall of Confucius Institutes in the US

Recent Features

China Power | Society | East Asia

The Rise and Fall of Confucius Institutes in the US

Will the controversial Chinese government-funded programs rise again under another name?

The Rise and Fall of Confucius Institutes in the US

A Confucius Institute building on the campus of Troy University, Troy, Alabama, U.S., on March 16, 2018. Troy University’s CI closed effective March 1, 2023.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Kreeder13

In 2019, over ​100 American universities and colleges throughout the nation were home to Confucius Institutes (CIs), established in partnership with the Chinese government ostensibly to provide Chinese language and cultural instruction.

It is important to note that the Confucius Institutes were so named by the Chinese government with foreign, particularly Western, sentiments in mind. The name of “Confucius” (孔子, Kong Zi) strikes a positive note outside of China, conjuring the image of a wise sage who wrote pithy sayings. While the Confucius Institute program was launched under President Hu Jintao in 2004, current President Xi Jinping has gone on to further re-introduce Confucius to the Chinese public, helping to make the ancient philosopher relevant and even fashionable again. In fact, in attempting to re-brand the Chinese Communist Party in his own image, Xi has publicly embraced Confucianism as strongly as Mao Zedong rejected it.

For Mao, the father of Communist-led China, Confucian values were the underpinning of China’s inability and unwillingness to modernize. Confucius stressed orderliness and harmony in society, at any cost. Therefore, behavior that disrupted a peaceful and predictable environment was both unwelcome as well as socially unacceptable. Chaos was to be prevented at all costs, even if the price was an antiquated society unprepared to meet the challenges of an ever-encroaching and demanding world.

Mao did his best to remove all traces of Confucian life and ideals from “new” China after his takeover of the country on October 1, 1949.  Confucian texts, especially the famous “Analects,” were burned throughout the country. As with all aspects of life before Communism, Confucius was eradicated as a governing social force, and replaced with the tenets of the Chinese Communist Party.

Rebranding Confucius

Fifty-five years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, it was safe to dust off Confucius and rebrand him as a tool of international diplomacy. With the stated mission of spreading Chinese language studies and Chinese culture among the intelligentsia of the United States, China knew it had little to fear from those who would take Confucius Institute courses. It is well-known within China that only a small fraction of those who begin Chinese classes will ever achieve even a conversational level of fluency.  Therefore, teaching Chinese to foreigners poses little threat. Very few foreigners learn Chinese well enough to operate on their own in China without the use of translation.

So, what is the purpose of the CI in the minds of the Chinese government? Several answers come to mind.

The most natural and obvious use of a Confucius Institute at an American college, from a Chinese perspective, is to act as a portal by which to gain data and information about U.S. colleges, universities, their faculty and students, and their general region, while at the same time functioning as a tool to promote a positive picture of China to the American public, especially in the face of much negative reporting about human rights, technology theft, and China’s role in the drug trade.

However, there is another potential facet to the CI phenomenon. CIs were able to keep tabs on Chinese students at the host college or university. In fact, this function may be far more important to the Chinese government than conducting low-level surveillance on colleges and their environments.

China has very strict national security legislation in place. This legislation functionally requires Chinese citizens to report to the government any activity that a Chinese citizen finds suspicious, and that could be deemed as a threat to Chinese national security. The legislation does not end at China’s borders, as far as the Chinese government is concerned. Indeed, it makes every Chinese citizen responsible for safeguarding China’s national security interests no matter where those threats may exist.

Chinese students abroad are subject to this law, despite the fact that the law has no jurisdiction overseas. Once a student returns back to China, if they have been reported as conducting or participating in activities that could undermine the CCP or the government – including social media posts critical of the party-state – they can face legal consequences.

In addition, a Chinese citizen abroad may fail to report activity by another Chinese citizen that appears to be detrimental to the interests of China. The failure to report such activity to Chinese authorities is as subject to prosecution as carrying out the activity itself.

This, some Chinese students have feared, is where the Confucius Institute comes in. Chinese personnel sent from China to perform the work of the CI on American campuses have themselves been carefully vetted for “political correctness” Chinese-style. As such, those personnel would be as interested in observing the lives of the Chinese students on campus as they are in learning more about the American educational institute itself.

The Backlash

Not surprisingly, as general suspicions of China grew in the United States, these Confucius Institutes soon came to the attention of both the White House as well as lawmakers in both houses of Congress. Bipartisan concern over the influence and propaganda that CIs could exert through their on and off campus activities led to legislation aimed at shutting the institutes down through economic sanctions on the colleges and universities that hosted them.

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump signed a $717 billion defense bill into law that prohibited Defense Department funds from being used for Chinese language instruction provided by a Confucius Institute or by a Chinese language program at any college or university that hosted a Confucius Institute, whether that CI actually taught the class or not.

Interestingly, the prohibition included a waiver clause that allowed a Defense Department official to certify that no CI teachers or employees had any involvement with the course seeking DoD funding and no authority or influence over its curriculum. In the months after the prohibition went into effect, 13 colleges and universities applied for that waiver. None succeeded.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the United States – a non-partisan congressional watchdog and investigator – was asked by various members of Congress to research and report on the status of Confucius Institutes since the funding restrictions were put into place. That report was published on October 30, 2023.

The GAO Report

Kim Gianopolous, a director in GAO’s International Affairs and Trade team, said the survey of U.S. colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes wasn’t “looking into the allegations of what a CI was or was not doing.” The goal, rather, was to “paint a picture of what the current environment was.”

GAO’s survey found that in over 91 percent of the 74 colleges and universities who responded, the Confucius Institutes were also involved in “outreach” to the business community in their areas. Over 28 percent provided classes to K-12 schools. For those concerned that American universities, children, and business leaders were being targeted with Chinese Communist Party propaganda, the Confucius Institutes became a lightning rod issue exemplifying an American China policy that was seen as weak, ineffective, and naive by many.

One finding of GAO’s report, which surveyed college administrators, is an almost complete lack of concern about espionage, the theft of intellectual property, and other national security threats based on the experience of having worked with the Confucius Institute on their campus. According to the report, “80 percent (59 out of 74) of survey respondents stated that they were ‘not at all concerned’” about such issues, while only 5 percent (4 out of 74) stated that they were either “very concerned” or somewhat concerned.

China watchers in business and government may be surprised at such a perspective. But, as Gianopoulos told The Diplomat, “the academic environment is one of openness,” where the “sharing of information” is encouraged. Academics have a “different dynamic, different approach to information,” she said.

Indeed, it turns out that the biggest concern Confucius Institute hosts had were not about American national security, but instead about the effect that losing government grants for research projects would have on their institutions going forward. Given a binary choice – keep access to U.S. government funding or keep the Confucius Institute – it seems that most schools and universities succumbed to the sanctions provided in the legislation.

A Footnote

The vast majority of Confucius Institutes in the United States have now closed. But there is a footnote.

The National Association of Scholars reported in June 2022 that “Confucius Institutes, once a strategic part of China’s overseas influence campaign, have almost disappeared from the United States: 104 of 118 have shut down. But the demise of Confucius Institutes has not deterred the Chinese government, which has persuaded American colleges and universities to reopen and rebrand Confucius Institute programs under new names.”

With open acknowledgement of the purpose, mission, and tactics of these new organizations, it remains to be seen if the stringent financial sanctions colleges faced for hosting Confucius Institutes will be enforced on their copycat programs or not. If not, China will continue to exert its influence and interests on a cooperative, collaborative American academia for years to come.