Senate approves bill against China-funded Confucius Institutes

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Lily Thompson performs a Celebration Ribbons dance during a New Year celebration at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center in Westbrook on Saturday, February 10, 2018. CAFAM Chinese School students performed traditional dances at the Association of Maine and the Confucius Institute at the University of Southern Maine at the celebration sponsored by the Chinese & American Friendship.

Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

The Senate unanimously passed a bill on Friday to improve oversight of China-funded cultural centers or Confucius institutes on university campuses.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Confucius Institutes are “government-funded outposts that provide instruction in the Chinese language and culture.” However, some politicians have accused them of spreading propaganda.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Marsha Blackburn presented a bill last year to increase transparency in the centers. “For far too long, the Chinese communist government has tried to infiltrate American universities through the disguise of the government-run Confucius Institute,” said Rubio.

The bill, approved by the Senate on Friday, would reduce federal funding for universities and colleges with Confucius Institutes on campus that do not comply with the new oversight rules and regulations.

The bill must be taken up by the House of Representatives and signed by President Joe Biden to become law.

The case against the institutions has gained momentum in recent years, especially among Republicans.

Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in 2019 that US schools provide access to the Chinese government that can “stifle academic freedom” and provide an “incomplete picture of the Chinese government’s actions and strategies that run counter to US interests “at home and abroad,” according to NBC News.

Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., However, said the Senate had “uncovered no evidence that these institutes are a center for Chinese espionage or other illegal activists” in the same NBC news article.

Human Rights Watch reported that Congress’s 2019 annual defense spending package severely curtailed the autonomy of these China-funded cultural centers by threatening to withhold funding for language programs from their host universities.

Human Rights Watch said nearly 22 Confucius Institutes have closed since the law was passed.

The University of Missouri closed its Confucius Institute last year after a notice from the U.S. Department of State for Education and Cultural Affairs regarding visa concerns while the Trump administration attempted to close the institutions.

Changes to the State Department’s guidelines for housing facilities would have made maintenance too costly, a university provost said at the time.

Long before the legislature sounded the alarm, university professors signaled problems with the institutes.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published a report in 2014 recommending colleges to dig deeper into classroom curricula and agendas.

“Confucius Institutes act as the arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom,” the statement said, which also highlighted a lack of transparency. “Most of the agreements establishing Confucius Institutes contain nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the Chinese government’s political goals and practices.”

Recently confirmed US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, came under fire during her hearing to confirm such institutes.

GOP Senator Ted Cruz highlighted a 2019 speech in a Confucius Institute that has since closed, in which Thomas Greenfield was gentle on China. Cruz claimed Thomas-Greenfield was overly optimistic about China’s relations with African countries, while not being tough enough on Beijing’s human rights record.

She later said the speech was a mistake, failed to express her views on China, and vowed to limit Beijing’s influence over UN General Assembly meetings.