The Confucius Institutes are Chinese-funded “cultural centers” on college campuses that were established in 2004. Their activities have become more scrutinized as Chinese state operations in recent years.
Many organizations, such as the State Department and the FBI, investigated Confucius Institutes when Donald Trump was president. At the end of the year 2020, the administration of President Trump presented a regulation to the Department of Homeland Security mandating that educational institutions in the United States reveal their affiliation with Confucius Institutes. Most Confucius Institutes have closed or are in the process of closing in the last several years.
The Confucius Institute disclosure policy was overturned by the Biden administration less than a month later, despite Republican opposition, and the increased danger of Chinese influence remained.
At a Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday, titled “After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education,” speakers discussed the danger that Chinese Communist Party influence continues to pose to American higher education. The event was organized by the foundation.
Despite the fact that many Confucius Institutes have closed in the last several years, experts say that Chinese influence operations in American institutions, both higher and K-12, continue.
According to Walter Lohman, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, the Confucius Institutes were not like previous cultural and linguistic exchange programs created in the United States. Instead, they are used to reflect Chinese “national power” and function as “propaganda outlets.”
In spite of the fact that Confucius Institutes have been closing down, other organizations that perform their duties in a manner somewhat dissimilar to that of the former Confucius Institutes have arisen in their place. As Chinese Communist Party propagandists in America, they’ve changed their name but not their mission.
According to Indiana Republican Rep. Jim Banks, China’s dictatorship threatens the future of the United States and should be a key focus for policymakers at the event. According to an Indiana congressman, there is a significant misconception among many people regarding the competitiveness between China and the United States. According to him, it’s not; it’s being carried out in full view. The lawmaker specifically mentioned the United Front Work Department, which collaborates with Confucius Institutes and undertakes different influence operations in the United States. “The Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department’s mission is to influence foreigners and foreign institutions and especially those in America, and their work can be seen on college campuses all over the country,” Banks said. According to him, the United Front usually targets institutions with strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) departments.
Banks identified multiple instances in which the Chinese Communist Party used its ties to academic programs to undertake espionage. That includes a UCLA professor who secretly sent missile technology back to China from the US.
When Keith Whitaker, the National Association of Scholars’ chairperson, and other groups started discovering their actual character, he labeled the Confucius Institutes a “beachhead” of Chinese influence on higher education. Several of them “appeared” to shut down, he said.
Whitaker, however, explains that the issue is threefold. Higher education in the United States has not only been inspired by China’s communist state, but has shown such receptivity to its influence. Whitaker pointed the finger at university officials rather than faculty members for the situation.
According to Rachelle Peterson, a research fellow at the National Association of Scholars, the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to avoid inspection of Confucius Institutes by renaming and significantly rearranging them to make them seem like new entities. Chinese officials believe that by changing the program’s name and structure, no one will be the wiser, according to her.