The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pentagon barred from funding Confucius Institutes on American campuses

Xi Jinping in D.C. in 2012. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
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Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated what programs Joe Cutter stepped down from overseeing. This version has been updated.

Concern about Chinese influence operations on American campuses hit a new high this year after officials at Arizona State University bragged about mixing the school’s Pentagon-funded Chinese language programs and its Chinese Communist Party-funded Confucius Institute. Now, all schools may have to choose between Washington or Beijing paying for its students to learn Chinese.

Tucked inside the $716 billion John McCain 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that President Trump signed Monday is a provision barring any U.S. university from using Pentagon resources for any program involving Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-funded language schools embedded inside U.S. colleges. In the future, any universities that have Pentagon-funded and Chinese government-funded Chinese language programs will have to secure a Pentagon waiver if they want to keep both.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who sponsored the legislative language, told me Confucius Institutes are a threat to academic freedom and national security. Confucius Institutes are connected to the Chinese Communist Party’s “united front” influence efforts abroad. There are more than 100 Confucius Institutes on American campuses and more than 500 worldwide.

“Confucius Institutes are a key way the regime infiltrates American higher education to silence criticism and sanitize education about China,” Cruz said. “American taxpayer dollars should not be subsidizing their propaganda.”

He’s referring to ASU, which for two years had a Pentagon grant to build a pipeline to its collegiate-level Language Flagship Program (funded by the Pentagon) from its K-12 Chinese language programs, which are heavily supported by its Confucius Institute. The Flagship program is prestigious, and its graduates often go on to be top national security officials covering China.

The actual overlap was limited, and ASU had informed the Pentagon about the cooperation in documents the school provided me. The cooperation might not have raised eyebrows except that top ASU officials claimed it to be deeper and more significant than it actually was. In an April panel at the National Press Club, former Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon, now ASU’s vice president for government affairs, claimed (incorrectly) that the Pentagon was funding ASU’s Confucius Institute and therefore did not see it as a national security concern.

“The Department of Defense has invested in Arizona’s Confucius program because they are looking for this kind of a pipeline to find people who speak Mandarin and are able to do so in their field of study,” Salmon said. “I think that shows they are not concerned about it being a threat to national security.”

Salmon also said those who are concerned about the institutes were engaged in “McCarthyism,” adding that, “if it does pose a security threat, then the Department of Defense has made a big mistake by funding our program.”

The state media organ China Daily quickly reported Salmon’s comments to claim the Pentagon was funding Confucius Institutes and therefore isn’t concerned about them. The ASU Confucius Institute has also been bragging about its cooperation with the Pentagon-funded Flagship program. They credited that cooperation when accepting their award as 2016 Confucius Institute of the Year.

After Salmon’s comments, the Pentagon contacted ASU and directed the school to completely separate its Pentagon-funded programs and ASU’s Confucius Institute. For a time, ASU professor Joe Cutter oversaw both programs. University officials said he voluntarily stepped down from overseeing the Pentagon program. The Pentagon also did not select ASU for a new grant to link its government-funded college programs with its K-12 Chinese language program.

Defense officials acknowledged that ASU hadn’t broken its agreements but said Salmon’s comments showed that the cooperation had gone too far and was being used to misrepresent the Defense Department’s position. They do not see Confucius Institutes as benign.

“We do absolutely see this as a national security issue,” a senior defense official said. “We asked [ASU] what were the facts. Then we took action very quickly to shut it down.”

ASU officials said the school has now placed a firewall between its Pentagon-funded programs and its Confucius Institute programs. “ASU will of course comply with the new parameters set forth in the National Defense Authorization Act and has already taken steps to do so,” a university spokesperson told me.

I reached out to more than a dozen other colleges and universities that are subject to the new law because they have both Pentagon-funded Chinese language programs and Confucius Institutes. All that responded said they had never mixed the two programs and would apply for a waiver so that they could continue with both.

But privately, several university officials told me the new waiver process could complicate their next bid for Pentagon funding for Chinese language programs. They also fear that the Pentagon may look warily upon schools with Confucius Institutes as it plans to begin a new competition for the prestigious Flagship program next year.

The new law could have the unintended (or perhaps intended) consequence of forcing universities to choose between U.S. government or Chinese government money. They should not have to make that choice in the first place; the United States should be paying for American students to learn Chinese, not the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations arm.

At the very least, a national discussion is needed to establish best practices and minimize risk. Confucius Institutes must not become one more way Beijing uses money to get American institutions to support the Communist Party’s agenda.