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Op-Ed – Michael Krull: The Chinese Trojan Horse in American universities

The University of Maryland's McKeldin Library. (Carmichael Library/Flickr)
January 15, 2019

Across the political spectrum, many decry the corrosive influence of soft money on politics. The degree to which Russians played a role in influencing the 2016 (and 2018) elections has been in the headlines for more than two years. What no one seems outraged by – or even aware of – is the massive amount of Chinese money being funneled into the United States to influence the American public, university students and steal American intellectual property. In a Congressional hearing in February 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers that some organizations known as Confucius Institutes are being investigated for espionage; it can be argued that these Institutes constitute Trojan horses within American universities.

In 2004, the first Confucius Institute opened at the University of Maryland. Organized as a nonprofit, the stated goal of the Confucius Institute was to teach Chinese language and culture. Interestingly, rather than working with the existing Chinese language program and integrating into existing programs, it was set up in secret, according to Newsweek, and no one who was officially connected with the university’s Chinese language program had heard anything about it until the opening ceremony was announced.

Even more surprising, the Confucius Institute was headed not by someone experienced in teaching Chinese language or culture, but by a Chinese physicist with high-level connections to the Chinese government. Once established, the budget of the Confucius Institute far outstripped the university’s official language programs, and if the official programs wanted some of the Institute’s money, they would have to agree to programmatic changes, all of which were in line with official Chinese government positions.  

The nonprofit National Association of Scholars shows that there are currently 103 Confucius Institutes hosted by universities in the U.S., all of which claim to promote cross-cultural understanding and global education. They are all partially funded by an organization named “Hanban,” which is connected to the Chinese Ministry of Education. Hanban sends free textbooks for use at the Institutes, and plays a central role in determining which professors can be associated with the Institutes and what they can teach – in other words, they are dictating curriculum and intimidating scholars.  

Unlike the routine – and officially documented – Washington game of foreign countries hiring lobbyists or having their ambassadors and embassy staff meet with lawmakers, the Confucius Institutes are a massive, sustained influence campaign operating outside of the officially documented system and aimed to affect not only university faculty and students, but also think tanks and the media.

Lobbyists hired by foreign governments are subject to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires those individuals or firms representing the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to disclose the relationship to the Justice Department and regularly provide information about the types of activities they’re engaged in, the amount of money they receive, and how those funds are used. Confucius Institutes seem to be specifically designed to skirt these laws.

Increasingly, the type of Chinese students studying in the United States are more likely to come from wealthy, well-connected families who benefit from the positions and policies of the Chinese Communist Party. It is in their interest, and their family’s interest, to give voice to the official Chinese government rhetoric and not rock the boat once they arrive at a U.S. university. It is also in their long-term interests to bring as much technical and research information as possible back with them when they return to China and take their place in the system.  

There are some, including Christine Wormuth, a former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama Administration, who, according to Newsweek, think that these institutions are similar in scope to other government-funded cultural groups, such as France’s Alliance Francais, Germany’s Goethe Institute or Spain’s Cervantes Institute; that they are soft power tools rather than aggressive influence campaigns, or something more sinister.  I disagree with her.

These Institutes are not just in the United States. Bloomberg reports that there are more than 500 such Institutes in the world. Germany and the United Kingdom are also concerned and conducting their own investigations.  Bloomberg also looked at the budget priorities of the Chinese government and found that while Chinese military spending is relatively flat, diplomatic and cultural budgets have grown dramatically in the past decade. A significant portion of this spending is on the Confucius Institutes.

What should be the U.S. government’s response to the Confucius Institutes? At a minimum, Confucius Institutes should be required to register and make the required disclosures under FARA. We should monitor the exchanges of faculty and staff associated with them. We should learn how China monitors and rewards Chinese students, so that we can understand their priorities, recruitment and reporting techniques, and operational parameters.

We should make sure we know what technologies Chinese students are working on and consider limiting them to non-sensitive technological research. Further, we should require real integration of Confucius Institutes into the programs of the host university so that institutions taking Chinese money are truly independent from Chinese Communist Party influence and doctrine.

Operating outside of official governmental and diplomatic communications channels, and not subject to FARA, Confucius Institutes are massive influence campaigns and may also be involved in intellectual property theft and perhaps espionage activities on behalf of the Chinese government. The United States and our allies cannot allow this to continue.

Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.

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