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Confucius Institutes: A case study in CCP influence operations
Trent England • May 29, 2024

In 2019, law enforcement reported that “the Chinese government [poses] a particular threat to U.S. academia” and “does not play by the same rules of academic integrity that U.S. educational institutions observe.” The report includes many examples of actual and attempted espionage for commercial and military purposes.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) runs China as a one-party state. Most people living there have no political rights: no elections, no freedom of speech, no right to protest, and so on. The CCP has adopted an expansionist policy within its region, dominating Tibet and now Hong Kong, demanding control of the South China Sea, and insisting it will force “reunification” with Taiwan. The report warns that the CCP has global goals as well, including to “influence the world with a value system shaped by undemocratic, totalitarian ideals.”

One way the CCP pursues this goal is by providing funding and other resources to American colleges and universities. This may provide CCP entities some direct control over curriculum, policies, and hiring, but it also creates an environment of self-censorship if professors, students, or school officials believe that criticism of the CCP could cause a loss of funding.

Rachelle Peterson writes at the National Association of Scholars:

Since 2004, the Chinese government has planted Confucius Institutes that offer Chinese language and culture courses at colleges and universities around the world—including more than 100 in the United States. These Institutes avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, portray Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and educate a generation of American students to know nothing more of China than the regime’s official history.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy has called the Institutes “propaganda tools” and Human Rights Watch has accused them of censorship and hiring staff based on “political loyalty.” Thankfully, after the FBI raised concerns about these centers of foreign influence (and about actual CCP espionage in American universities), most universities shut them down.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the largest voluntary membership organization for state legislators, adopted model legislation to prohibit Confucius Institutes and another to require public disclosure of foreign gifts and grants. Florida enacted a law to do just that.

Confucius reportedly said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” That may be the CCP’s view with regard to influence operations, as they have been trying to rebrand and continue their academic “partnerships” abroad. Thankfully, groups like ALEC, the National Association of Scholars, and the new State Armor organization continue to provide states with information and other resources to counter the evolving threat.

“Faced with what is right,” another Confucius saying goes, “to leave it undone shows a lack of courage.”