Chinese-government-sponsored Confucius Institutes are “a tool for China to spread influence and exercise soft power,” “a known threat to academic freedom,” and “a danger to our national defense and security,” says Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) in a letter sent last week to the University of Missouri and Webster University. Both institutions host Confucius Institutes, campus centers that teach Chinese language and culture and are funded and partly staffed and overseen by the Chinese government. Hawley urges the universities to “reconsider” those relationships.
Hawley’s conclusions aren’t just his own personal notions. He cites FBI director Christopher Wray, who for the last year and a half has publicly warned colleges about Confucius Institutes. Just last week Wray testified, in response to questioning from Hawley, that Confucius Institutes are “part of China’s soft power strategy and influence” because they “offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom.”
Hawley cites Li Changchun, a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party, who famously declared Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” He cites North Carolina State University, which canceled an event with the Dalai Lama under pressure from its Confucius Institute. And he cites the fact that ever-increasing numbers of American colleges and universities — now 24 of them — have cut ties with their Confucius Institutes. (Hawley also cites an article I wrote, based on my 2017 report Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.)
Hawley’s concerns, well grounded and substantial, are nothing surprising. What is surprising are the reactions of Mizzou and Webster. After several years of growing evidence that Confucius Institutes are all-round a bad deal for colleges, they are doubling down in defense of their Confucius Institutes.
University of Missouri spokesman Christian Basi assured the public that all Chinese-government-sponsored teachers on its campus are mere “interns” and that Mizzou, having previously been in touch with the FBI, is “doing the proper things to monitor” possible academic espionage. Basi also says that Mizzou will review its contract for the Confucius Institute before it expires in 2021 but that the university has already “made some changes to policies and procedures.”
Webster University president Elizabeth Stroble went two leaps further. One day after receiving Hawley’s letter, she dashed off a response, declaring, “We have no reason to believe that the Confucius Institute at Webster University creates the risks described in your letter.” Stroble demanded of Hawley, “If you are aware of evidence that anyone is using the Confucius Institute at Webster University for a nefarious purpose, please share such evidence with us without delay.”
Mizzou and Webster should take Hawley’s concerns more seriously. Reflexively declaring that all the FBI’s warnings involve some other university somewhere else reflects poorly on Mizzou and Webster’s commitment to safeguard academic freedom and protect their students from propaganda — let alone from espionage.
Mizzou, where professor Melissa Click called for “some muscle over here” to oust a student journalist from a 2015 protest, and whose system president and campus chancellor resigned rather than face down activists’ demands, is probably outstanding example No. 1 of a poorly run public university. In the two years following those events, enrollment dropped 35 percent and Mizzou eliminated 400 positions. That track record doesn’t inspire confidence in Mizzou’s ability to manage the risks of a Confucius Institute.
Webster in particular has a poor track record of keeping tabs on its Confucius Institute. One year ago the former director of its Confucius Institute was convicted in federal court of embezzling $375,000 from the university. Deborah Pierce had directed funds to a separate bank account, from which the federal government recovered an additional $160,000.
That kind of outright illegal behavior is rare. The greater danger is subtle. Confucius Institutes teach the Chinese government’s preferred version of Chinese culture, a version whitewashed of Muslim Uighurs, 1 million of whom are currently held in concentration camps in Xinjiang. Confucius Institute teachers, Chinese nationals hired and paid by the Chinese government, are coached to omit the Tiananmen Square massacre and to represent Taiwan as part of China. One Chinese staff member at a Confucius Institute told me that if she were asked about Tiananmen Square, she would “show a picture and point out the beautiful architecture.”
The Hanban, the Chinese government agency tasked with overseeing Confucius Institutes, instructs teachers to focus on lessons that result in “deepening friendly relationships with other nations.” That’s not necessarily harmful — but it leaves students with a remarkably one-sided education.
Confucius Institutes are central players in China’s long-term strategy to gain influence in American institutions. Colleges and universities see them as financial goody bags: free teachers and textbooks plus ancillary funds to offer Chinese classes, study-abroad funding, sponsored trips to China for the university president and other administrators, access to full-tuition-paying Chinese students. Webster University operates a campus in China. Half of all Mizzou’s foreign students come from China.
Any institute that spreads propaganda has no place on American college campuses. Too many have eagerly accepted China’s funding without protecting academic integrity. Senator Hawley deserves credit for calling the University of Missouri and Webster University to account. It’s time for Confucius Institutes to go.