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Time to shut down all Confucius Institutes — whatever they might be called

AP Photo/Andy Wong
In this Sept. 16, 2018, file photo, American and Chinese flags are displayed together on top of a trishaw in Beijing. The United States has designated China’s Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of the Chinese Communist Party. Congress must do much more, however, to address the threat that China poses to the international order.

Earlier this week, while I was visiting London, a senior British official asked me whether the United States would follow his government’s lead and commit itself to phase out all the Confucius Institutes operating on its territory. His question was prompted by a debate in the House of Commons on Nov. 1, when Minister for Security Tom Tugendhat, responding to questions put to him by senior backbencher and former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, announced that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is “looking to close” the 30 Confucius Institutes in the United Kingdom. Tugendhat added, “Confucius Institutes pose a threat to civil liberties in many universities in the UK.”

The Institutes, which the Chinese Government created and which have maintained a presence in 160 countries, officially offer language and cultural programs. Beijing compares them to the French Alliance Francaise, the British Council, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes or Germany’s Goethe Institute. These organizations have considerable autonomy, however, while the Confucius Institutes are an arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Moreover, unlike their supposed counterparts, Confucius Institutes are located at or near universities, affording their officials access to the universities themselves. Finally, each Institute is sponsored by a Chinese university, thereby effectuating tight links between the host university and the Chinese academic sponsor.

As recently as 2017, the United States was host to more than 100 Confucius Institutes, almost all of them located at colleges or universities. The Institutes worked closely with academic departments to cosponsor seminars, conferences and cultural events; they also sponsored academic exchanges and programs for language study in China. The Institutes’ lack of transparency prompted investigations in several Western European countries, Japan and the United States as to what was their true intended purpose.

Concern that the Institutes engaged in activities more closely akin to espionage than to cultural promotion prompted the Nordic countries to take the lead in shutting them down. As early as 2015, Sweden closed the Institute in Stockholm, in response to the 2015 Chinese abduction and jailing of Gui Minhai, a Swedish publisher. By 2020, concerned about Chinese takeovers of local companies, security concerns, human rights abuses, and repression in China, especially in the Xinjiang autonomous region, Stockholm closed all Institutes operating in Sweden.

Sweden’s Nordic neighbors have followed suit. In 2020, Norway canceled the Institute’s program at the University of Bergen, the only one in that country. Finland has announced that it will not renew the contract between the country’s sole Institute and the University of Helsinki when it expires in 2023. Denmark has closed all but one of its Institutes. The latter operates in conjunction with a second-tier business academy. On the other hand, the ones that were shut down had been affiliated with the country’s top schools.

In the United States, due in no small part to congressional legislation that denies Department of Defense funding to any institution of higher learning that retains links to a Confucius Institute, the number that have maintained such relations has declined to 16, and most are small schools. No top universities or colleges still host or have links with a Confucius Institute. Moreover, according to the National Association of Scholars, at least 28 Institutes have reopened under new names. The most prominent among them appears to be at Stanford, which closed its Confucius Institute but in 2021 opened a Center on China’s Economy and Institutions, whose programs are remarkably similar to those that the Institute had sponsored.

In 2020, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, which manages the individual institutes in the United States as a Chinese “foreign mission.” Two years later, the CHIPs Act exerted further pressure on academic institutions by restricting National Science Foundation funding to those that work with Confucius Institutes. It is time that the Biden Administration and the Congress went even further. Congress should deny any form of federal funding — not only to those colleges and universities that continue to work with the Institutes, but also to those that work with programs bearing different names that essentially preserve the Institutes’ presence and influence on campuses. 

French, British, German, Spanish and indeed American overseas cultural programs are what they claim to be. Similar-sounding Chinese programs are actually quite different. They are handmaidens of the government in Beijing, serving as vehicles for Chinese espionage and propaganda. They should be frozen out of American academia once and for all.   

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China aggression Chinese Communist Party Confucius Institutes Rishi Sunak

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