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University of Hawaii’s Confucius Institute closes as FBI raises alarm

A zoom-in look at University of Hawaii campus in the foreground. (InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr)

The University of Hawaii has shuttered its China­-influenced Confucius Institute following new federal restrictions and amid FBI warnings that universities are not doing enough to stem intellectual property theft and espionage.

UH closed the institute effective May 31 “in order to maintain federally funded research and educational opportunities for its faculty and students,” the university said in a news release.

“We thank the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China for 13 years of support of our K-16 and community outreach efforts,” UH said.

The university in early May told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that it planned to end the program. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 prohibits the use of defense funding for language programs at colleges or universities that also host Confucius Institutes, except in cases where Defense Department waivers are granted.

The Defense Department determined it was “not in the national interest” to provide waivers.

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UH spokesman Dan Mei­senzahl said at the time that the university had received $2.1 million in Defense Department funding over the past six fiscal years for its Chinese language “flagship” program. The effort is part of the National Security Education Program.

The university receives millions in additional Pentagon funding that might have been jeopardized if UH kept its Confucius Institute.

“The Confucius Institute was a valued component of the university?s work to provide education and outreach in Chinese language and culture,” Meisenzahl said Friday.

“While hosting the Confucius Institute, UH Manoa advanced dynamic programs and dialogue regarding Sino-U.S. relations and maintained American standards of academic freedom. These exchanges only deepened our mutual intellectual understanding,” he added.

But Greg Shepherd, a music and drama professor at Kauai Community College, said the closing of Confucius Institutes at UH and elsewhere “should come as welcome news to anyone who values freedom and human rights.”

“The institutes are a blatant attempt at propaganda by a Chinese government that oppresses the people of Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as practitioners of Falun Gong and other religions,” he said. “It’s a sad reflection on the University of Hawaii that it took 13 years to boot the institute off the UH campus — and only then because of the threat of funding cutoffs by the Department of Defense.”

More than 15 of the institutes, which are controlled, funded and mostly staffed by the Chinese government, have closed since the Pentagon crackdown and with growing criticism of China’s intentions.

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“I would say that there is no country that poses a more severe counterintelligence threat to this country right now than China,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Wray emphasized this is not about the Chinese people as a whole and “certainly not about Chinese Americans in this country.”

But Wray said there’s a lot that people don’t understand about the nature of the China threat. It’s not “spy vs. spy” traditional intelligence operatives, he said.

“There are a slew of what we call nontraditional collectors: businessmen, scientists, high-level academics, graduate students, etc. — people who are not intelligence officers by profession, but who are, for a variety of reasons, working on behalf of the Chinese government,” Wray said.

He added that “a fairly significant pattern of espionage” is occurring at academic institutions. Universities “need to be more and more aware of who it is they’re inviting over and what safeguards they can put in place.”

The FBI has “probably about 1,000-plus investigations” across the country involving the attempted theft of intellectual property, with “almost all leading back to China,” he said.

Wray said there are a growing number of universities that are “much smarter now about this issue than they used to be,” but they are “not necessarily where we need to be.”

The FBI, meanwhile, is “spending a lot of time” engaging with universities and research labs to help them understand the nature of the threat and what to be on the lookout for, Wray told the Senate panel.

Controversial from their start at the University of Maryland in 2004, Confucius Institutes were intended to promote Chinese language and culture. UH opened the sixth Confucius Institute in 2006.

According to a February Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report, the Chinese government provided more than $158 million to more than 100 schools since 2006.

In 2015 the UH program, at its Center for Chinese Studies, was designated a “model” institute by the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education and awarded $1 million.

UH previously said the Confucius Institute supported language credit courses and offered noncredit courses as well as research seminars, speakers, film screenings, exhibitions, performance tours and school visitations.

The FBI director said Confucius Institutes “are a source of concern,” but they are viewed more as part of China’s “soft power” strategy and influence.

“In other words, those offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom, etc. So it is an area of concern,” he said.

Asked whether UH is proactively monitoring for possible intellectual pipelines to China among its students and academia, Meisenzahl said only that the university follows federal guidelines.

UH did not detect any intellectual property/espionage concerns related to the institute, he said, but “the threat of cyber attacks is a reality for all federal, state and county agencies along with universities and corporations.”

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© 2019 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.