U.S. Sen. James Lankford has joined the growing list of critics of Confucius Institutes on college campuses, including one at the University of Oklahoma, that are substantially controlled by the Chinese government.
A release from Lankford’s office says the institutes represent “Chinese efforts to exert inappropriate influence on American university campuses” and that the institutes “repress free speech and discourage transparency.”
“The Confucius Institutes are directly funded and overseen by the Communist Party of China (CPC), whose suppression of human rights and malign activities around the world warrant a strong response from the U.S.,” said Lankford, R-Oklahoma City. “The fact that they are invited onto numerous college campuses around the U.S. is concerning and should be addressed.”
Lankford and six Senate colleagues have filed the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act to require program-participation agreements between Confucius Institutes and American institutions that house them to address the ways China exerts undue influence.
This legislation will require: appropriate background checks for Confucius Institute staff and professors; making institute-university agreements publicly available online; removing the confidentiality section of agreements; including stronger language in the agreements to make it clearer that the U.S. school has executive decision-making authority; clear delineation between the Confucius Institutes’ programs and a college’s own Chinese language programs; locating an institute apart from Chinese language, history, and cultural programs; and removing the Chinese assistant director position from Institutes.
“This bill takes steps to ensure China is not promoting propaganda or political censorship on campuses under the guise of the seemingly innocuous Confucius Institutes,” Lankford said. “The bill also ensures China cannot unduly influence and pressure decisions at our universities because of the presence of a Confucius Institute. The U.S. wants a constructive relationship with China, but the lack of transparency around Confucius Institutes inhibits our ability to do that.”
“No foreign government should have the ability to pressure US institutions of higher education to change their curriculum or suppress politically sensitive content. At many schools, Confucius Institutes have acted as extensions of the Chinese Communist Party,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “The U.S. federal government has a duty to conduct careful oversight of foreign programs to protect our students from undue influence or foreign propaganda. These measures ensure that the agreements that our colleges and universities enter into are transparent both to the government and to the American people.”
The press release announcing the legislation stated, “Chinese officials have recently been documented pressuring faculty at U.S. universities that host Confucius Institutes to avoid making statements or holding events on politically sensitive topics. Chinese teachers at these institutes sign contracts with the Government of China pledging not to damage their national interests.”
At a February 2019 hearing of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, noted that when investigators from the Government Accountability Office spoke with U.S. school officials about the institutes, U.S. college officials “acknowledged that hosting a Confucius Institute could limit events or activities critical of China—not just at the Confucius Institute, but also elsewhere on campus.”
Due to related concerns, the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act specifically prohibited the use of Department of Defense funds for Chinese language instruction provided by a Confucius Institute
Lankford’s legislation comes at a time when Chinese government officials appear to be spreading conspiracy theories blaming the United States for the coronavirus, which originated in China’s Wuhan region.
Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently tweeted, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
The site for the Confucius Institute at the University of Oklahoma declares that it “seeks to support Oklahoma educators in their efforts to teach the Chinese language, and to assist Oklahoma businesses that wish to do business in the Chinese speaking world.”
The site also declares that the OU Confucius Institute “is one of the most comprehensive Confucius Institutes in the nation.”
The Hanban, the agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education, funds Confucius Institutes.
In 2018, in response to an open-records request, the University of Oklahoma acknowledged that it had received $1,045,958 from Hanban since 2007.
At that time, a university spokesman also said many financial contribution records associated with the Confucius Institute “are maintained by the OU Foundation, which is an independent not-for-profit corporation, and therefore not subject to the Oklahoma Open Records Act.”
Rachelle Peterson of the National Association of Scholars, who has researched Confucius Institutes, said she was not aware of any other schools channeling Hanban funds through a private foundation.
Even as the Coronavirus continues to wreak havoc with the national and international economy, the website for the OU Confucius Institute continues to tout travel opportunities in China.
An announcement currently on the OU institute’s website declares, “Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing recently announced several new fellowships to support travel to China for individuals or groups as part of the Confucius China Studies Program. The fellowships generally fund round trip airfare to China, travel within China, housing, food and medical insurance.”