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FBI investigating dozens of Chinese-backed ‘Confucius Institutes’ at US colleges

China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on March 19, 2017. (State Department/Released)
February 27, 2018

American universities hosting Chinese-backed Confucius Institutes need to be more transparent about the details of their arrangements and should publicly show the amount of money they receive from the organization, regional experts say, according to the Washington Free Beacon. And, the FBI is currently investigating dozens of them to ensure they’re not part of Chinese intelligence, influence and propaganda operations.

Confucius Institutes are portrayed by Beijing as a center that promotes Chinese language education and cultural exchange around the world.

This new criticism of the institutes stems from the United States’ fear that they threaten academic freedom, in part by limiting the discussion on issues that might be sensitive to the Chinese government.

“One of the features of the Confucius Institutes that’s now aroused the greatest concern is that they in many cases involved secret covenants between funders and the host institutions, or universities, that were not made public,” Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

Over the last 13 years, more than 100 Confucius schools have been implemented at various American universities. However, little is known about the terms of the agreements between the universities and Confucius schools, and the total dollar-amount invested in U.S. college campuses. Because some public universities have been faced with severe funding cuts in recent years, it was attractive for some universities to outsource Chinese classes and programs to Confucius Institutes and have them deal with the costs.

Top U.S. officials like Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, likened the Confucius Institutes to a “propaganda operation.”

Back in 2009, the Chinese government even claimed something similar, with the then-head of propaganda for the Chinese government describing the Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.”

Because of these concerns, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that the bureau is currently investigating dozens of Confucius Institutes across the United States. The FBI suspects that the institutes are part of covert intelligence and influence operations.

“They appear benign, and I suppose in some sense some of their activities might be, but they have this tie to the Chinese regime,” Friedberg told House members. “They’ve also allegedly in a number of instances played a role in shaping discussion on college campuses and elsewhere of issues related to China and suppressing the expression of some views that the Chinese regime finds offensive.”

Ely Ratner, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, had his own recommendations on how the Confucius Institutes might be able to be rehabilitate their image and how American universities should seek to engage with them.

“If there were standards of transparency and everybody was operating at the same level, that would create a fair playing field and not lead to some of these more secret, private, malicious agreements,” Ratner told the House panel.