Three universities in the United States announced in late April that they will terminate their Confucius Institutes (CI), the Chinese language education programs funded by the Chinese government.
The decisions by the University of Oregon, San Francisco University, and Western Kentucky University to close their CIs has brought the total number of such closures up to at least 15 in the last 15 months, according to an article by Inside Higher Ed.
All three schools said that their decisions were informed by the fact that the Department of Defense turned down their proposed arrangements to run both CIs and the Defense Department-funded Chinese Language Flagship Program.
Last August, President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by Congress. The Act requires the Department of Defense to terminate the funding for the Chinese Flagship Program in any U.S. universities hosting a Confucius Institute, unless the school has a special exemption.
The Pentagon recently confirmed to Newsweek that since the NDAA came into effect, it has no longer subsidized such universities, and 13 universities that hosted Confucius Institutes and applied for exemptions this year will not be granted an exemption.
In recent years, China’s communist government has extended its reach abroad in an attempt to expand its global influence. These moves have drawn attention worldwide, with the Confucius Institutes, which are funded by Beijing, being especially criticized for their violation of academic freedom.
Defense Ministry spokesman Jessica Maxwell said that under the NDAA, the Deputy Secretary of Defense has the power to decide whether to grant an exemption. However, upon review, the Department of Defense determined that were an exemption granted, it would not be in line with U.S. interests.
The Pentagon stated that its new policy has been made known to all universities that applied for exemptions. This means that these universities must choose between federal funding and Chinese government funding.
Since 2002, the Pentagon has funded the Language Flagship Program to help university graduates with Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, or Turkish skills, as well as to develop language talents for national security agencies.
Bob Skipper, a spokesman for Western Kentucky University, told Newsweek that the school had decided to close its Confucius Institute because it was unable to obtain an exemption from the Department of Defense.
It’s expected that in addition to the three universities that recently decided to shutter their CIs, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which won’t be exempt from the Department of Defense regulation, will follow suit.
The first Confucius Institute operated in the United States was established in 2004. About 100 universities in the United States have established CI programs since. Among the 15 U.S. schools to close their CIs are Indiana University, University of Rhode Island, and the University of Minnesota.
Newsweek reported that Chinese officials have acknowledged that Confucius Institutes played a vital role in expanding the soft power and helping carry out propaganda assignments for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its United Front Department.
Last year, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray said in a testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI is very concerned about Confucius Institutes and has conducted investigations into a number of cases.
Alexander Dukalskis, an expert specializing in Asian politics at University College Dublin, told Newsweek that the biggest benefit of closing Confucius Institutes is that it eliminates the potential threat to academic freedom on campus.
“The CCP’s work in reviewing academic research, trying to control teaching, and putting scholars in jail has a long history and is still going on,” said Dukalskis.
He warned that it would be naive to imagine that the CCP would not use Confucius Institutes to affect overseas perceptions about itself or that the Institutes would respect academic freedom.
After an 8-month investigation by the U.S. Senate Standing Investigation Committee (Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations), the investigation report released in February indicated that Chinese authorities have provided more than US$158 million to CIs, and that their purpose is to promote the spread of the CCP’s ideology.
The report said: “American school officials told the Subcommittee that the Confucius Institute is not the place to discuss controversial topics such as Taiwan’s independence or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.”
“As an American school administrator explained to the Subcommittee, when the Chinese government subsidized something, you know what you will get.”
The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Justice make a decision as soon as possible as to whether all Confucius Institutes and their employees should be required to register as foreign agents.