As part of America’s overdue awakening to China’s foreign influence operations campaign inside the United States, the intelligence community and lawmakers are shining new light on how the Communist Party is operating inside America’s higher-education system and raising the alarm about the possibility of Chinese intelligence-gathering in parts of the United States it hasn’t operated in before.
Now drawing increased attention are the Confucius Institutes. These Communist Party-sponsored educational collaborations are on more than 100 U.S. university campuses and often operate through opaque arrangements with host institutions. And while nobody wants to demonize educational or cultural exchanges between the United States and China, the push for more transparency in and oversight of these collaborations is gaining steam.
“Communist China is infiltrating American universities to meddle with our curricula, silence criticism of their regime, and steal intellectual property including sensitive dual-use research,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). “The Confucius Institutes are the velvet glove around the iron fist of their campaigns on our campuses. The American government needs new tools to protect the integrity of our universities and research, and to block academic espionage.”
Cruz is introducing legislation intended to boost government authorities’ capacity to deal with foreign intelligence organizations operating inside the American education system. Called the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2018, the bill doesn’t mention China by name, but it is a clear attempt to give the U.S. law enforcement community more tools to deal with the Chinese Communist Party’s expansion inside American educational institutions.
The legislation would create a way for the FBI to designate an entity as a “foreign intelligence threat to higher education” and then require academic institutions to follow strict reporting and disclosure rules for any financial interactions with designated foreign entities.
That’s a direct response to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray’s unprecedented public warning in February testimony that Confucius Institutes are among the entities used by the Chinese government as “nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting,” in large and small cities all across the United States.
“It’s across basically every discipline,” said Wray. “And I think the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere.”
Wray specifically called out Confucius Institutes, saying the FBI was “watching warily” and investigating in “certain instances.”
Cruz’s bill would also lower the threshold for universities for reporting on foreign financial contributions or gifts, from $250,000 to $50,000. That mirrors language in a House legislative effort led by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) that would also bring Confucius Institutes under the reporting rules of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Public examples of espionage at U.S. universities due to their relationship with Confucius Institutes are hard to come by. Their classes on Chinese language and culture are often benign. Their value lies in the relationships they provide between the Chinese government and the American institutions that host them.
But according to journalist Daniel Golden, who wrote a book on intelligence collection on American campuses, the risk is that Confucius Institutes provide the Chinese government opportunities for intelligence-gathering that the United States is not prepared to counter. The faculty at the institutes are, for example, chosen by Hanban, the Communist Party’s educational arm, and are subject to government pressure.
“Chinese intelligence does see Confucius Institutes as a way to gather information,” Zao Cheng Xu, director of the Confucius Institute at Indiana University-Perdue University Indianapolis, told Golden.
Intelligence-gathering is not the only reason Confucius Institutes are coming under scrutiny. There are several reported examples of Confucius Institutes and their staff working to stifle criticism of China on campus. Often, universities self-censor in order to keep the funding and the reciprocal access to China that the relationships enable.
The National Association of Scholars reported last year that “to a large extent, universities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Sometimes these concessions are official and in writing; more often they operate as implicit policies.”
Due to internal criticism, or under pressure from lawmakers such as Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), several American universities have cut ties with their Confucius Institutes. Rather than stifle positive collaboration with China, the policy and academic worlds should come together to set principles and best practices based on transparency, disclosure and firm barriers preventing undue pressure or influence. Congress can play a role in setting those rules.
That could dispel distrust, ensure accountability and set a model for all types of U.S.-China exchange. Cooperation with China is positive, but must be based on clear guidelines and without tolerance for the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to abuse American institutions for their own objectives.