Reciprocity or Removal: An Ultimatum for Chinese Confucius Institutes


Confucius Institutes, formed by the Chinese Ministry of Education, systemically plague higher education across the United States. Although intended to be seen as learning centers fostering Chinese language and culture, their true purpose is to project an influence campaign that promotes self-censorship, teaches a revisionist history of China, and suppresses freedom of expression and inquiry.

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Startlingly, China openly admits the agenda of Confucius Institutes; Li Changchun, former Propaganda Chief and senior leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), publicly remarked the following in 2011: “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending 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." Confucius Institutes promote Chinese national interests by exporting the CCP’s ideals into American universities, censuring criticisms of the Chinese government, and forbidding discussion of “The Three T’s:” Taiwan, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The U. S. Congress and NGOs that monitor the flourishing Confucius Institutes have repeatedly called for reciprocity. A prominent example of the unfairness of the U.S.-China relationship was the establishment of “American Cultural Centers” in China to engage Chinese students with American values and culture. Though this program cost the State Department in excess of $5 million, only twenty-nine of these American Cultural Centers were funded, seven of which never opened. In 2014, the ones that did open faced the scrutiny of the Chinese government, which restricted their programming, effectively leading to the imminent closure of all but three centers. Unsurprisingly, these three surviving centers are scheduled to close by the summer of 2019. By stark contrast, the Chinese government has provided at least $158 million to the one hundred Confucius Institutes in the United States.

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Although not all Confucius Institutes operate in the same fashion or pose a threat to U.S. values, keep in mind this jarring truth: some contracts involving Confucius Institutes oblige American universities to comply with Chinese law on the campus. Besides the failure to report foreign gifts and contracts, these self-selecting institutions bring to fruition a space on college campuses that suppresses political debate and extinguishes free speech and dissent.

 Multiple congressional hearings and legislation have brought about national awareness of this existential threat and, in a few cases, positive results. More than ten colleges and universities have closed their doors to Confucius Institutes, most recently Indiana University. To date there are three bills being considered in Congress to address this issue: the “CONFUCIUS Act” (S. 939) sponsored by Senator John Kennedy, “Countering the Chinese Government and Communist Party's Political Influence Operations Act” sponsored by Representative Chris Smith in the House and by Senator Marco Rubio in the Senate (H.R. 1811 and S. 480, respectively), and “Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2018” (S. 2903) sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz.

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However, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels as long as the Chinese government continues to undermine American efforts of reciprocity. The U.S. government should continue to pressure American universities to distance themselves from Confucius Institutes by suspending their federal funding, possibly under the umbrella of Executive Order 13864. Perhaps President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan should also consider spearheading the formation of Taiwanese cultural centers in partnership with American universities to counteract the messages promulgated by Confucius Institutes. Taiwanese cultural centers that would teach Mandarin and promote democracy, free market economies, and Taiwanese culture would be refreshing programming in United States higher education.