Josh Lederman, NBC News, February 27, 2019
Senate investigators are warning that China has opened government-run centers at more than 100 American college campuses, pouring over $158 million into Confucius Institutes that spread Chinese influence while going largely unmonitored by the U.S. government.
China’s government “controls nearly every aspect” of the institutes, including the funding, staffing and programming, according to a new, bipartisan report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Their proliferation has also prompted espionage concerns and attracted significant interest from the FBI, including from its Counterintelligence Division.
The warning comes amid heightened concern about whether China’s growing global footprint, propelled by massive investments in everything from foreign roads and ports to 5G wireless technology, pose a security and counterespionage risk to the United States and other countries.
The Confucius Institutes, which bill themselves as language and cultural centers, started popping up in the United States in 2006. The roughly 110 institutes that now exist in 44 states are among more than 500 worldwide, all controlled by Beijing through its Ministry of Education. China typically invests $100,000 to $200,000 to build a center and then another $100,000 or so per year to operate it, Senate investigators say.
For American campuses, the lure has been difficult to resist. With little to no investment of their own, schools get an infusion of instructors, language training and cultural programming from a region that many American students are eager to learn more about.
Senate investigators found that discussion of politically sensitive topics like Taiwan were prohibited at Confucius Institutes and that requirements at some schools that teachers follow Chinese law risked extending censorship to U.S. soil.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who chairs the Senate panel, said U.S. schools are allowing a level of access to the Chinese government that can “stifle academic freedom” and provide an “incomplete picture of Chinese government actions and policies that run counter to U.S. interests at home and abroad.”
“Absent full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for U.S. cultural outreach efforts on college campuses in China, Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States,” Portman said.
FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate last year that law enforcement was “watching warily” and was in some cases taking investigative steps. And Bill Priestab, the FBI’s counterintelligence chief, warned last month that the institutes are “ultimately beholden to the Chinese government.”
“There have been instances where those institutes appear to have quashed free speech,” Priestab told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence and an NBC News law enforcement analyst, says American schools need to be aware of the risks in entering into relationship with Confucius Institutes “because clearly there’s an opportunity for exploitation by the Chinese intelligence services, when you see the kind of money being thrown at the funding.”
Investigators found that the State Department has only conducted field visits at two Confucius Institutes — both in 2018 — and found visa violations at both, such as fraudulent paperwork or misuse of research visas. The State Department told the Senate it plans to perform four visits this year to institutes.
The State Department said its authority to monitor the activities of Confucius Institutes is limited, but that where possible, “we are robustly monitoring and working with designated university sponsors to ensure compliance with all relevant Exchange Visitor Program regulations.”