Confucius Institutes – central nodes in China’s soft power campaign – have almost disappeared from the West. There are 16 in the United States, down from 118. Sweden has eradicated Confucius Institutes. Germany has been trying to do the same, as are conservatives in the U.K. Australia cracked down, too.
But the Chinese government hasn’t backed down. It is now seeking to reopen Confucius Institutes under new names, as described in After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education, a report I coauthored for the National Association of Scholars.
In the U.S., Confucius Institutes (CIs) closed following a national reckoning with the scale of China’s influence operations. CIs paid colleges and universities to host Chinese nationals, who would teach Chinese language and culture using textbooks the Chinese government selected and paid for. China hadn’t exactly hidden its ulterior motives. Confucius Institutes serve as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up,” Li Changchun, a standing member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, said in 2009 – though American academics tended to turn a blind eye. Changchun made China’s ulterior motives clear, though: “The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
Perhaps CIs looked “reasonable and logical,” but the West did eventually catch on to the ruse. In 2020 Michael Pompeo, then Secretary of State, warned that CIs are “part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus.” The State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of China. It audited Confucius Institutes and found a host of problems, including teachers who had mispresented their work on their visa applications.
The FBI began discussing higher education’s “naivete” and opening investigations into CIs. The Department of Education and the Department of State issued notices to school districts with Confucius Classrooms, which are a K-12 version of Confucius Institutes. Members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – began writing their constituent universities and introducing bills to address Confucius Institutes. The National Defense Authorization Act was amended twice to bar universities with Confucius Institutes from certain Department of Defense grants.
Confucius Institutes fell precipitously. Ten closed in 2018, 23 more closed in 2019, 27 in 2020, and 34 in 2021. As of October 2022, as noted, only 16 remain open.
Efforts to thwart the Chinese government’s plan apparently worked, at least on first glance.
As the term “Confucius Institute” became less and less attractive to a Western audience, the Chinese government simply sought a new name. Thus began a steady stream of rebranding efforts, all aimed at repackaging the same basic Confucius Institute programs under new auspices.
First came the rebranding of Hanban, the Chinese government agency that founded, funded, and ran Confucius Institutes. In 2020, as Confucius Institute closures were skyrocketing, Hanban renamed itself. It is now the Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation, or CLEC.
Then came a sleight of hand: CLEC spun off a separate nonprofit, the Chinese International Education Foundation, or CIEF. CLEC is running programs that are similar to Confucius Institutes under new names, and CIEF is running Confucius Institutes.
Next came similar efforts by American colleges and universities, many of which signed up for the Chinese government’s replacement programs that all but duplicate many of the original problems posed by Confucius Institutes.
In the U.S., our research found that at least 28 colleges and universities that closed a Confucius Institute replaced it with a very similar program, usually operated in partnership with CLEC (the new name for Hanban) or with the same Chinese university that had partnered with the Confucius Institute. Another 12 sought to do so, though we were not able to determine if they actually did. At least 58 maintained a close relationship with the Chinese university that had been their partner in the Confucius Institute. And a few – at least five – were so loath to close the Confucius Institute that they recruited another institution to host it so that the Confucius Institute could stay open.
In fact, the single most popular reason that colleges and universities give when they close a Confucius Institute, is that they are going to replace it with some other Chinese partnership.
The second most popular reason is U.S. public policy. This almost certainly is the actual driver of Confucius Institute closures, though colleges are not always forthright.
It is telling that the reason colleges and universities give least frequently is that they are concerned about malign Chinese government influence. Although this is the main reason driving U.S. public policy on Confucius Institutes, only five colleges and universities cited that. Clearly, they do not share the concern of the nation over Confucius Institutes.
What do these replacement Confucius Institutes look like? Here are a few examples.
Northern State University closed its Confucius Institutes in 2019. One year later it signed an agreement with the Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation. CLEC will “dispatch Chinese language teachers” and pay their salaries and travel costs, just as Hanban did for the CI. Northern State University is responsible for providing classroom space, offices, teachers’ housing accommodations and health insurance, much as it did for the CI. Little has changed but the name.
Georgia State University replaced its CI with the Chinese Language and Culture Program, which it runs, not with CLEC, but with Beijing Language and Culture University, its former CI partner. The two universities signed an agreement establishing the new Center the same month the CI closed, in July 2020, and then renewed the agreement in 2021.
When it announced the Confucius Institute’s closure, Georgia State University also announced this replacement program, which it described as an opportunity “to build on and expand the many achievements of the Georgia State CI.” The university also said that the new Chinese Language and Culture Program would inherit the staff from the Confucius Institute.
The agreements Georgia State signed do include some improvements on the original CI agreements. They pledge better protections for intellectual freedom and promise that American law, not Chinese law, will govern the program. Yet these are promises on paper – “parchment barriers,” James Madison would have said – and the institutional structure is overall the same.
The College of William and Mary took the approach of establishing a “sister university” relationship. It replaced its CI with the W&M-BNU Collaborative Partnership, run in partnership with Beijing Normal University, its former CI partner. The day after the CI closed on June 30, 2021, the two universities signed a new “sister university” agreement establishing the program. This new Collaborative Partnership builds on and extends the programs the Confucius Institute once offered.
In the appendices of After Confucius Institutes, my coauthors and I summarized what we know about all 118 Confucius Institutes that ever existed in the United States. Online, we also built a database of documents for about 80 colleges and universities, including the original Confucius Institute contracts, correspondence and negotiations with the Chinese government over the Confucius Institute closure, and contracts for many of these replacement programs.
We conclude that Confucius Institutes have given way to new forms of Chinese government influence. The influence comes via a variety of new names. The Chinese government is too smart and proactive to replace Confucius Institutes with a single new monolithic program. Instead, the approach is far more sophisticated. It is more difficult and time-consuming to track.
What can be done?
The most immediate thing is to use the policies that worked against Confucius Institutes, starting with the National Defense Authorization Act, which was amended to target Confucius Institutes. This first amendment barred Department of Defense funding from colleges and universities with Confucius Institutes. But the law can be used to target CI replacements.
The National Defense Authorization Act defined a Confucius Institute this way: “The term ‘‘Confucius Institute’’ means a cultural institute directly or indirectly funded by the Government of the People’s Republic of China.” Replacement Confucius Institutes count. They are cultural institutes funded directly or indirectly by the Chinese government.
U.S. universities are betting that no one will trace the links or that the current administration will not enforce the law. But the tool is available to use.
Second, address Confucius Classrooms. These are K-12 versions of Confucius Institutes. They are poorly understood. There is no detailed research on Confucius Classrooms the way there is for Confucius Institutes. And After Confucius Institutes suggests that the majority of Confucius Classrooms remain open, even though most Confucius Institutes have closed. The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations should study Confucius Classrooms and issue a report, as it did for Confucius Institutes in 2019.
Third, take seriously the sheer scale of the Chinese government’s influence campaigns on American higher education. Policymakers will be tempted to begin a game of whack-a-mole: cracking down first on Confucius Institutes, and then on any other subsequent iterations CIs devise for themselves. This approach is short-sighted.
Congress must consider more powerful, long-term measures that reckon with the size and scope of Chinese Communist Party influence campaigns on American higher education. For instance, Congress could institute a tax on funds institutions receive via Chinese gifts and contracts. It could cap the amount of Chinese funding universities may receive before jeopardizing eligibility for federal funding. Congress could also prohibit federal funding to colleges and universities that enter research partnerships with Chinese universities involved in China’s military-civil fusion.
Fourth, Congress must demand transparency. Section 117 of the Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities to disclose foreign gifts and contracts exceeding $250,000 per year. Institutions have done all they can to avoid complying with this law. The current Department of Education is aiding them by retroactively editing old disclosures to remove information.
It is very difficult to implement any policies targeting inappropriate funding from the Chinese government without knowing what funding is going on. Many policies depend on the accuracy of Section 117 reporting. It is crucial that colleges comply with the law and disclose their foreign gifts and contracts. It is crucial that the administration enforce this law. And it is crucial that the law is updated to eliminate some of the loopholes that are right now being exploited.
The story of Confucius Institutes is a story of warning. But it can once again be a story of success, with increased vigilance and stronger policies by the United States.