• China provided over $158 million in funding to U.S. schools for ‘Confucius Institutes,’ which Chinese officials have called a form of propaganda, a bipartisan Senate investigation found.
  • The program’s U.S. counterpart in Chinese universities was shut down after alleged Chinese interference.  
  • FBI Director Christopher Wray faulted ‘naïveté’ among U.S. college faculty, and China is now expanding the program into grade schools, the report said. 

The Chinese government has funded hundreds of outposts in U.S. universities that its own officials say are avenues for propaganda, according to a bipartisan Senate investigation.

Most U.S. institutions of higher learning that received significant Chinese funding failed to report the foreign contracts in violation of the law, and many signed contracts that included secrecy provisions that prevent their terms from being known by students and the public, according to the report.

The Chinese government funds and staffs centers called Confucius Institutes at colleges outside China according to a 100-page report issued Wednesday by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which will hold a hearing on the topic Thursday. The program is run by a Chinese government entity called Hanban.

“We should actively carry out international propaganda battles,” China’s former Minister of Propaganda Liu Yunshan said in a Chinese newspaper in 2010. “Our strategy is to proactively take our culture abroad … We should do well in establishing and operating overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.”

The growth of China’s Confucius Classrooms (Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations)

According to the report, Li Changchun, a former member of the Chinese government, said in a 2011 speech that “Confucius Institutes are an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” He said the program “has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power … Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”

Administrators at most of the U.S. host colleges told government investigators they had no qualms about the program — even as some of the program’s personnel allegedly sabotaged other professors’ academic materials mentioning Taiwan and even as the Chinese government obstructed the U.S.’s effort to create a complementary program in China.

“I think the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said during a 2018 congressional hearing, according to the report. China is “exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it.

“So one of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us,” he continued. “So it’s not just the intelligence community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector.”

The Chinese program is now expanding into grade school and has set up 519 “Confucius Classrooms” in U.S. K-12 classrooms, according to the report. “Since 2006, the Subcommittee determined China directly provided over $158 million in funding to U.S. schools for Confucius Institutes,” the report said. “The Department of Education requires all post-secondary schools to report foreign gifts of $250,000 or more from a single source within a calendar year of receiving them.

“Despite that legal requirement, nearly 70 percent of U.S. schools that received more than $250,000 from Hanban failed to properly report that amount,” it continued.

The pool of teachers is selected by the Chinese program and they come over on visas granted by the State Department that are designated for academics conducting research, but the Senate report found indications of visa fraud.

In 2018, the State Department revoked 32 visas for Confucius Institute teachers because they were not conducting research but rather teaching at K-12 schools.

“The State Department also found evidence that one Confucius Institute Chinese director improperly coached the teachers to discuss their research during interviews with State Department investigators,” the report said.

When it comes to colleges failing to disclose foreign money, the Department of Justice told Senate investigators it had no indication that the Department of Education has ever tried to take U.S. colleges to court for allegedly violating the law.

Likewise, the report says the State Department has done little on-the-ground investigation of the programs. “In 2019, the State Department plans to double the number of Confucius Institutes field reviews it completed in 2018 – from two to four,” the report says.

The U.S. attempted to establish parity by creating “American Cultural Centers” (ACC) in which U.S. universities would partner with Chinese ones to set up programs abroad. But the program was ended in 2017 after the Chinese government allegedly repeatedly obstructed programs and denied them academic freedom.

“Despite receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the State Department, at least seven ACCs sponsored by U.S. schools were unable to ever open due to Chinese interference,” the report said.

One U.S. college official told Senate investigators that the Communist Party was involved in approving cultural events, and others said permission was routinely denied.

“Another U.S. school official left the ACC after two sessions of extensive questioning by Chinese police officers regarding her involvement with the ACC and the State Department,” the report said. “When the U.S. school official returned to the United States, a colleague told her that Chinese police interrogation of school officials was common and that she was now just ‘part of the club.’”

Chinese outposts in US schools vs. American outposts in Chinese schools (Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations)

In October 2018, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, wrote to the attorney general that the program may violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The report, written by staff for both Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware, concluded that “Schools in the United States—from kindergarten to college—have provided a level of access to the Chinese government that the Chinese government has refused to provide to the United States … Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States.”

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton urged two colleges in his state to sever ties, while Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote in a February 2018 letter to Florida universities that “[g]iven China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad, I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement.”

In 2013, the Canadian Association of University Teachers called on colleges to shut the programs down, saying “Confucius Institutes are essentially political arms of the Chinese government” and “restrict the free discussion of topics Chinese authorities deem controversial.”

Meanwhile, “As China opened over 100 additional Confucius Institutes in the United States over the last 15 years, the Department of Education remained silent,” the report said.