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Opinion The furor over the Confucius Institutes is distracting from real Chinese threats

An image of Confucius created using different varieties of rice in a paddy near Shenyang, China. (AFP/Getty Images)
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I began studying Chinese in 1978, the year before the United States normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China. The textbooks we used at Stanford University came straight from Beijing. Apart from memorizing “this is a table and that is a pen,” we ingested a diet heavy of Maoism. First-year Chinese, and my classmates and I were already reciting Red China’s catechism. Among the incantations: “vanguard of the proletariat,” “down with imperialism” and “Long Live Chairman Mao.”

I’ve been reflecting back on the beginning of my lifelong connection to China as a controversy over the teaching of Chinese in the United States has reached Congress. A proposal by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) would force the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes, which operate on the campuses of close to 100 American universities, to register with the Department of Justice as agents of a foreign government. Wilson is not alone. Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged his state’s colleges and universities to shutter their Confucius Institutes. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) did the same last week, calling on the 40 universities and colleges in his state to either shut or commit to never opening the institutes at all. In May, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) alleged that Confucius Institutes are linked to espionage on U.S. universities and introduced legislation — the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act — in an effort to help the FBI to monitor the institutes.

Congress is worried about Confucius Institutes because of allegations that teachers and administrators from the institutes have been involved in censoring discussions about China on U.S. college campuses. The institutes are also controversial because many of the agreements between the Chinese government and the colleges and universities have been concluded in secret. College administrators, seduced by offers of funding from China, have cut faculty senates — which ordinarily would be involved in such decisions — out of the process.  These are serious issues, but nothing that can’t be dealt with by the universities themselves.

Congressional threats against Confucius Institutes come at a time of grave concerns about the United States’ relationship with China. For decades, the U.S. approach to China was premised on the assumption that, over time, China would become more liberal as long as the United States supported its rise. As that assumption has proved false, American politicians seem desperate to try to roll back China’s influence in America and are aiming at Confucius Institutes as the thin edge of this wedge.

Congressional action to shut Confucius Institutes is foolish, and will do nothing to deal with the challenges presented by the People’s Republic of China. First, if American students are so easily brainwashed by biased textbooks and biased teaching methods imported from China, then we as a nation really are in a fix. Thinking back to Chinese 101 at Stanford, despite the radical syllabus, none of my classmates ended up manning the barricades to promote China’s revolution.

I went into journalism and was ultimately tossed out of China in 1989 after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, before joining The Post and returning to China as its bureau chief in 1996. Other classmates became businessmen, joined the State Department, the military or the CIA. Despite the distortions of our language study, none of us seemed to embrace a blinkered view of the Chinese state. I trust that today’s generation studying Chinese is no different.

Indeed, the congressional campaign against Confucius Institutes appears to be more politically inspired than based on any real threat emanating from the institutes themselves. There is no doubt Chinese spies are interested in stealing industrial and military technology from the campuses of American universities. There is also no doubt they are not doing it from Confucius Institutes. I believe FBI Director Christopher A. Wray veered from his talking points in February when he told Congress that the FBI was looking into Confucius Institutes. Subsequent conversations with senior counterintelligence officials have confirmed that Confucius Institutes are not considered a threat to national security.

Focusing on Confucius Institutes and not on, say China’s Thousand Talents program, which seeks to lure leading American scientists and their inventions to China, is the type of sloppy reporting that makes it more difficult to gauge the threat from China. In that way, it’s reminiscent of the McCarthyism period during the 1950s.

Recent histories, based on intercepts from the then-Soviet Embassy, have shown that Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his acolytes were actually correct that there were a number of Soviet and Chinese agents working inside the United States during World War II and into the early 1950s. The problem was that McCarthy’s allegations were so sweeping, so scattershot and so intentionally destructive of individual lives, that they made it impossible to have a cool-headed examination of Soviet and Chinese penetration in the U.S. government.

Likewise with the furor over the Confucius Institutes. Instead of clarifying the challenge from China, those jumping on the congressional bandwagon have muddied it. In their eagerness to “do something” about China, they are doing the wrong thing: going after a relatively harmless language-training program while more serious intelligence breaches occur elsewhere.

In the end, I did get the chance to try out some of my leftist Chinese vocabulary. On my first trip to China in 1980, I shared a train berth with a Chinese official. Seeking solidarity, I observed that the Bob Marley song coming from my boombox was “revolutionary music.” He looked at me in abject terror.

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