NAICU Washington Update

Senate Subcommittee Investigates Confucius Institutes

March 07, 2019

Following an 18-month investigation, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a staff report and findings regarding the alleged impact that China, through its Confucius Institutes, is having on primary and postsecondary education in the United States. 

At a hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs following the release of the report, Chairman Rob Portman (R-OH) and Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) both expressed serious concern about the lack of transparency and reciprocity with the Chinese government, especially with regard to the Confucius Institutes, while also emphasizing the importance of cultural exchange and foreign language learning with China and other countries across the world. 

Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government, and provide Chinese teachers to teach language classes and host cultural events. Confucius Institutes were first established in 2004, and exist all over the world.  Since 2006, China has spent $158 million setting up Confucius Institutes at more than 100 colleges and universities and 519 Confucius Classrooms in K-12 schools in the United States. Books, videos, and other materials are also provided to the programs by the Chinese government. 

Senators voiced concern that these cultural exchange and language programs are ultimately controlled by the Chinese communist government, and are part of China’s long-term, broad-based agenda to soften the world-wide perception that China is an economic and security threat. Senators are concerned that funding for the programs comes with strings and controls attached, like limiting academic freedom and stifling free discussion of issues sensitive to the Chinese government.  

Senators are also concerned that a 2010 State Department program to create reciprocal American Cultural Centers in China did not get established successfully.  Even after spending $5.1 million, 7 of 29 centers did not open, and many faced obstacles at every stage, whether with setting up the program, engaging teachers, approving speakers, or getting permission to hold cultural events.  The State Department stopped funding these programs in 2018.   

These concerns were based on the detailed subcommittee staff report, which looked into the establishment of Confucius Institutes, the origins and controls of their funding, the use of the program on college campuses, State Department interaction with Chinese teachers, Education Department reporting, and the difficulties establishing American Cultural Centers in China. Ultimately, the subcommittee is concerned that China has access to the U. S. that the U. S. does not have in China. 

The subcommittee heard from witnesses representing the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the State Department and the Department of Education. 

To support its testimony, the GAO issued a report that noted that while “some researchers, U.S. officials, and others have raised concerns about undue influence and suppression of academic freedom,” the GAO “reviewed 10 universities and found their institute directors were all U.S. university employees who reported they—not China—had full control.”  The GAO also noted that not all of the Institutes are the same in terms of size, resources, programming, etc. and that 10 of the 100 were slated to close by the end of 2019 as a result of increased scrutiny.

The State Department representative testified about increasing field visits to Confucius Institutes, and oversight of visa compliance. 

Related to the issues surrounding the Confucius Institutes, Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais, who also testified at the hearing, stressed the need for increased reporting from colleges on foreign gifts.  As a result of the hearing, the Department will look at reissuing guidance to colleges and universities on reporting foreign gifts of over $250,000 per year.  According to Zais, this level of reporting has been required of institutions since 1986.  Zais also noted that China is the top provider of foreign gifts to institutions contributing $222 million last year, which is 17 percent of the total amount of foreign gifts to institutions reported. However, he also noted that only 91 of over 3,000 institutions even reported gifts, and that such gifts came from more than 100 different countries. 

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