Confucius Institutes Closing, but Chinese Influence Operations Continue on College Campuses

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When an organization becomes unpopular, it rebrands, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its mission or product has fundamentally changed.

That was the message of a panel of experts at a discussion Tuesday at The Heritage Foundation on the recent widespread closures of so-called Confucius Institutes on American college campuses. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

Founded in 2004, Confucius Institutes are “cultural” centers that operate on college campuses and are funded by China. In the past few years, they’ve come under increased scrutiny as operations of Chinese state influence.

Under then-President Donald Trump, Confucius Institutes were placed under scrutiny by various agencies, including the State Department and the FBI. At the end of 2020, the Trump administration submitted a rule at the Department of Homeland Security requiring that U.S. universities disclose their connection to Confucius Institutes.

In just a few years, most Confucius Institutes have shut down or begun the process of doing so.

However, the Biden administration rescinded the Confucius Institute disclosure policy less than a month later, despite objections by Republican lawmakers, and the heightened risk of Chinese influence remains.

At Tuesday’s Heritage Foundation event, “After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education,” panelists explained the threat that Chinese Communist Party influence continues to represent in American education.

Experts said that despite many Confucius Institutes closing in the past few years, Chinese influence operations in American schools, in both higher education and K-12, continue.

The National Association of Scholars co-hosted the event. You can read its report on this subject here.

Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, explained in his opening remarks that the Confucius Institutes were not like other cultural and language exchange programs established in the United States. They are instead intended as a vehicle to project Chinese “national power” and are essentially “propaganda outlets.”

Even though Confucius Institutes have been shutting down, new organizations that function nearly the same way have emerged in their place. They’ve rebranded, but retained their function of promoting the interests of the Chinese Communist Party in the United States.

“With Confucius Institutes around the country being shut down … I think most of us thought the job was done. We could move on,” Lohman said. “But of course, the job can never be done, and stemming these sorts of influence operations will be an ongoing challenge, requiring eternal vigilance as long as the Chinese Communist Party is in power.”

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., spoke at the event about how China’s regime imperils America’s future, and that’s an issue that must be a top priority.

“America cannot both control its own destiny in the century ahead and ignore the threat the Chinese Communist Party poses to our long-term viability as a nation,” he said.

The Indiana lawmaker said that one of the big misconceptions about the competition between China and the United States is that that rivalry is being conducted in secret. It isn’t; it’s being conducted in plain view, he said. In particular, the congressman pointed to the United Front Work Department, which partnered with Confucius Institutes and conducts various influence operations in the U.S.

“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.

The United Front typically targets universities with strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs, he said.

Banks cited several examples in which the Chinese Communist Party conducted espionage through its connection to university programs. That included a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles covertly sending missile technology back to China.

“President [Donald] Trump led the effort to take Chinese espionage attempts seriously. During his administration, he was the first president to actually do so,” the Indiana lawmaker said. That included sanctioning the United Front for the first time.

Banks lauded policies and leadership during the Trump era that led to 104 of the 118 Confucius Institutes closing or beginning the process of closing by the end of 2022.

However, Banks said that the Biden administration “fundamentally does not understand the China threat and has undone in a year and a half much of the progress that was done under President Trump.”

Keith Whitaker, chairman of the National Association of Scholars, called the Confucius Institutes the “beachheads of Chinese influence on higher education” that came under deep scrutiny since his and other organizations began uncovering their true nature. Many of them “appeared” to close, he said.

The problem, however, is twofold, Whitaker explained. It’s not just a problem that higher education in America has been influenced by China’s communist regime, but that it has showed such openness to its influence. Whitaker faulted university administrators for that, rather than professors.

Rachelle Peterson, a research fellow at the National Association of Scholars, said that the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to sidestep scrutiny of Confucius Institutes by rebranding and slightly restructuring to make them seem like new organizations.

“The Chinese government is betting that if it takes away the name ‘Confucius Institute’ and tweaks the structure of the program, no one will be the wiser,” she said.

Often, a Confucius Institute is rebranded as a Center for Language Education and Cooperation.

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