The massive National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Donald Trump on Monday includes a provision that requires universities to choose between hosting Chinese language programs funded by the Pentagon or China’s Confucius Institute, which has been linked to the Chinese Communist Party and described as a threat to American academic freedom.
The provision in question was sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cruz also supported provisions of the NDAA that require the Defense Department to publish photos of China’s militarized islands in the South China Sea, shield DoD from Chinese lobbying efforts, and bar China from participating in the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercise until Beijing halts “a range of activities threatening American security.” The Chinese were livid at being disinvited from RIMPAC in 2018.
“Confucius Institutes are a key way the regime infiltrates American higher education to silence criticism and sanitize education about China. American taxpayer dollars should not be subsidizing their propaganda,” Cruz told the Washington Post on Tuesday.
The problem facing the Defense Department, in short, is that it has a great appetite for personnel with Chinese language skills. The Pentagon finances a university-level Language Flagship Program to meet this need. The Confucius Institute also offers Chinese language programs at roughly a hundred American colleges.
In at least one notable case, Arizona State University, the two programs were intermingled, raising the concerns about Chinese Communist Party influence voiced by Senator Cruz. The Washington Post noted with some irony that the Pentagon and Confucius Institute programs seem to have been less intimately connected than at least one ASU official, current vice president for government affairs and former congressman Matt Salmon, claimed.
Salmon said the Pentagon was directly funding the Confucius Institute, which gave the Chinese operation an official U.S. government seal of approval and reduced criticism of the Confucius Institute to mere “McCarthyism.”
China’s state-run media strongly approved of Salmon’s statements, but the Pentagon did not. U.S. defense officials stressed that the Confucius Institute is “absolutely” seen as a national security issue. It was deemed necessary to construct a strict firewall between programs funded by the U.S. and Chinese governments to avoid further confusion.
Some university administrators fear they will effectively be forced to choose between hosting the Pentagon and Confucius Institute programs. Some critics of the Confucius Institute believe that’s not a bad idea.
Another U.S. senator deeply concerned about Chinese influence is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Rubio welcomed the University of North Florida’s decision on Tuesday to close the Confucius Institute on its campus. The Confucius Institute will formally shut down in February following a mandatory six-month notice.
“There is growing and well-founded concern about these Chinese Communist Party-funded Institutes. I continue to urge other Florida universities to follow suit,” said Rubio.
The University of North Florida is one of five schools Rubio urged to cut ties with the Confucius Institute in February. The others are Miami Dade College, the University of South Florida, the University of West Florida, and Cypress Bay High School. The University of West Florida announced it would not renew its Confucius Institute contract soon afterward.
The CIA issued a classified report in March warning that the Chinese Communist Party “provides ‘strings-attached’ funding to academic institutions and think tanks to deter research that casts it in a negative light.”
“It has used this tactic to reward pro-China viewpoints and coerce Western academic publications and conferences to self-censor,” an unclassified summary page of the report said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate in February that numerous Confucius Institutes across America are under investigation for espionage and influence operations.
Wray said China increasingly relies on “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence, “especially in the academic setting,” and criticized “naivete on the part of the academic sector” about the extent of the threat.