China’s controversial Confucius Institutes could constitute a threat to university life and freedom of speech in the U.S., as their funding comes "with strings attached," according to a report by a U.S. Senate subcommittee.
The United States Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations said in a recent report that the Chinese Communist Party has poured more than U.S.$158 million into U.S. universities to fund Confucius Institutes since 2006.
But it found that "Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom," and recommended they be shut down if there is no improvement in transparency around their dealings with U.S. universities.
The report said that teachers and funding for the institutes are provided and controlled by China's ministry of education acting through the Confucius Institutes Headquarters, or Hanban, citing an organizational chart on the body's official website.
"Each U.S. school signs a contract with Hanban establishing the terms of hosting a Confucius Institute," the report found.
"Contracts reviewed by the Subcommittee generally contain provisions that state both Chinese and U.S. laws apply; limit public disclosure of the contract; and terminate the contract if the U.S. school take actions that “severely harm the image or reputation” of the Confucius Institute," it said.
This means effectively that all teachers, events and speakers at Confucius Institutes are approved by Beijing, even on U.S. soil, according to the report.
Teachers at the institutes are recruited and selected by the Hanban, and sign contracts promising not to damage China's national interests while overseas. They are also banned from taking part in activities or organizations proscribed by China.
"Such limitations attempt to export China’s censorship of political debate and prevent discussion of potentially politically sensitive topics," the Senate subcommittee found, adding that officials had testified that Confucius Institutes were "not the place" to discuss controversial topics like the independence of Taiwan or the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Demand for transparency
Meanwhile, U.S. universities are failing to report such funding as a foreign gift, as required under U.S. law, the report said.
"Nearly 70 percent of U.S. schools that received more than U.S.$250,000 from Hanban failed to properly report that amount to the Department of Education," it said.
"Confucius Institutes’ soft power encourages complacency towards China’s pervasive, long-term initiatives against both government critics at home and businesses and academic institutions abroad," it said.
The report recommends closing the Confucius Institutes operating in the U.S., unless there is “full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for U.S. cultural outreach efforts on college campuses in China."
At the very least, teachers employed by the Hanban should be required to register in the U.S. as foreign agents, it said. The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires disclosure of agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a political or quasi-political capacity.
Confucius Institutes currently exist on more than 90 U.S. campuses. They are billed as cultural institutes akin to the British Council or the Goethe Institut, promoting the study of Chinese language and culture, but critics say their agenda is also a political one.
Wang Weizheng of New York's Ithaca University said he agreed with findings of the Senate report.
"Yes, they do sponsor some research projects, but students and faculty have found that there are certain topics that you just can't touch," Wang said.
"That even extends to speakers, who can't be invited, and so on," he said.
Exiled dissident Yang Jianli, who heads the U.S.-based rights group Citizen Power for China, said the institutes amount to a form of cultural "spying."
"They engage in a kind of cultural spying, in that they send out people who are hired by the government collect the opinions of U.S. citizens, and develop an army of cultural allies," he said.
"If Confucius Institutes don't change their ways, and continue to work against freedom of speech and academic freedom, there is likely to be a constitutional challenge that goes all the way to the Supreme Court," Yang said.
Very different world view
Macau University lecturer Choi Chi U said the Confucius Institutes have a world view that is very different from that of pluralistic, democratic societies.
"Everyone is very concerned that the rise of populism is eroding democracy and its development," Choi said. "Meanwhile, China is very good at using Confucius Institutes to brings its kind of thinking to bear and influence countries.
"To an extent, it's a form of ideological colonization, so the impact of authoritarian politics on the rest of the world could be very serious indeed," he said.
In a separate report also published this week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), took a more sanguine view of the institutes.
But it also highlighted transparency concerns, concluding that "the presence of an institute could constrain campus activities and classroom content."
The GAO report also cited several university officials, researchers and others, who "expressed concerns that hosting a Confucius Institute could limit events or activities critical of China–including events at the Confucius Institute and elsewhere on campus."
Of the 90 agreements reviewed by its investigators, 42 "contained language about the agreement being confidential or language regarding the ability of either party to the agreement to share or release the agreement or other information," the report said.
More than a dozen U.S. universities have closed their Confucius Institutes since late 2017, while others are reviewing the relationship after the U.S, administration flagged stricter policies towards Chinese influence on U.S. campuses.
China said on Feb. 23 that Confucius Institutes will remain a key government policy, despite universities in Europe and the U.S. terminating some agreements in recent years.
The GAO report also said that the institutes also "provide valuable resources and opportunities to increase knowledge of and exposure to China and Chinese culture within the school and in the broader community," a finding that was highlighted by China's state-run news agency Xinhua.
Xinhua also quoted foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying as calling on people to "abandon their prejudices" against Confucius Institutes, and as denying that they interfere with academic freedom.
Reported by Wang Yun for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.