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Senate approves bill to tighten controls on China-funded Confucius Institutes on U.S. university campuses

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Lily Thompson performs a Celebration Ribbons dance during a Lunar New Year celebration at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center in Westbrook on Saturday, February 10, 2018. Students from the CAFAM Chinese School performed traditional dances at the celebration that was sponsored by the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine and the Confucius Institute at the University of Southern Maine.

Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

The Senate on Thursday approved by unanimous consent — without a roll-call vote — a bill that would increase oversight on Confucius Institutes, China-funded cultural centers that operate on university campuses.

According to Human Rights Watch, Confucius Institutes “are Chinese government-funded outposts that offer Chinese language and culture classes.” However, some politicians, particularly Republicans, have accused them of spreading propaganda.

“Confucius Institutes are under the control of the Chinese Communist Party in all but name,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who introduced the bill. “This bill would give colleges and universities full control over their resident Confucius Institutes and restore freedom of thought on their campuses.” 

In 2020, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced a similar bill. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of that bill’s co-sponsors, said, “For far too long, the Communist Chinese government has attempted to infiltrate American universities through the disguise of the government-run Confucius Institute.”

The bill approved by the Senate on Thursday, S-590, would cut federal funding to universities and colleges that have Confucius Institutes on campus that don’t comply with new oversight rules and regulations.

The bill will next be sent to the House for consideration.

In her Senate confirmation hearing in January, recently confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield came under fire for a 2019 speech she gave at a Confucius Institute in which she appeared soft on China.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said during the hearing that Thomas-Greenfield was being overly optimistic about China’s relationship with African countries while not being tough enough on Beijing’s human rights record.

Thomas-Greenfield later said the speech was a mistake and didn’t portray her views on China, and she vowed to limit Beijing’s influence at U.N. General Assembly meetings.

The case against the institutions has gained steam in the past few years.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in a 2019 report said U.S. universities have provided a level of access to the Chinese government that can “stifle academic freedom” and give an “incomplete picture of Chinese government actions and policies that run counter to U.S. interests at home and abroad.”

The bipartisan report followed a probe by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, of which Portman was chairman, into how American colleges and universities manage Confucius Institutes on their campuses.

The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said in the report that although the Senate had uncovered “no evidence that these institutes are a center for Chinese espionage or any other illegal activity,” it is “critical that we be vigilant in combatting foreign efforts to influence American public opinion.”

Congress’ 2019 annual defense spending package severely limited the autonomy of these China-funded cultural centers by threatening to withhold language program funding from their host universities, Human Rights Watch reported.

In turn, nearly 22 Confucius Institutes have closed since the act’s passage, according to Human Rights Watch.

The University of Missouri closed its Confucius Institute last year, after a notice from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs regarding visa concerns, amid a Trump administration drive to shutter the institutions.

Changes to State Department guidance on hosting the institutions would have made it too costly to maintain, a university provost said at the time.

Long before the lawmakers raised alarms, university professors signaled problems with the institutes.

The American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, released a report in 2014 that recommended colleges take a deeper look at curricula and agendas brought forth in the classroom.

“Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom,” the statement said, also highlighting a lack of transparency. “Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.”

— CNBC’s Lynne Pate contributed to this report.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that the bill was approved on Thursday.

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