A pair of Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would block the Pentagon from funding universities that host the Confucius Institutes (CIs), a cultural exchange program with ties to the Chinese communist regime.
On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) introduced a bill called the “No Federal Funding for CCP Spying and Persuasion In Education Settings (SPIES) Act.” The bill (pdf) would expand an existing prohibition on federal funding for CIs.
The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) barred the Department of Defense from providing funds to institutions of higher education that host the CIs. However, the bill did allow the Secretary of Defense to grant waivers. Banks and Rubio’s bill would close down that waiver process.
Banks had questioned the waiver process in an April 21 letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The Indiana lawmaker said the waiver process leaves open “significant loopholes.”
“There is no situation where we should make it easier for the Chinese Communist Party to spy on our universities. Safeguarding American research by ensuring no DOD funds go to universities with Confucius Institutes is common sense and vital to our national security,” Banks said on Tuesday.
Banks serves on the House Armed Services Committee and House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
CI’s operate as Chinese language, culture, and history centers, but are funded and supervised by the CCP, according to a 2018 report (pdf) by the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission.
These CIs represent an enticing source of funding for many universities and since 2006, over 100 U.S. colleges have received more than $158 million (pdf) through hosting the influence arms of the Chinese state, according to a 2019 report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The CIs have been accused of promoting the CCP’s propaganda, pushing the Marx-inspired world view of China’s ruling political party in its single-party state. In 2009, The Economist quoted CCP official Li Changchung describing the CIs as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.”
“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending our culture abroad,” Changchun said in another 2011 speech. “It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
The CIs are also accused of exerting their influence to prevent universities from hosting speakers and curricula critical of the CCP. North Carolina State University disinvited the Dalai Lama from a 2009 visit after the director of the university’s CI warned that hosting the Tibetan spiritual leader would “hurt” the university’s relationship with China.
The CIs are further accused of monitoring Chinese citizens and dissidents studying abroad, and facilitating espionage and intellectual property theft.
“U.S. taxpayer dollars should not be benefiting the CCP and its murderous regime. Confucius Institutes, which are directed by Beijing, have plagued college campuses in our nation with the CCP’s propaganda. There is no reason why the DoD should support these institutes,” Rubio said on Tuesday.
Rubio is the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Battle to Close Down Confucius Institutes
According to a March report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative education research organization, 13 CIs remain open and active in the United States, while 108 CIs have been shut down or are in the process of shutting down.
However, NAS said at least 28 U.S. organizations have replaced their CIs with a similar program, and at least 58 U.S. organizations maintain close ties with their former CI partners.
“The Chinese government has executed an end-run of U.S. public policy,” Ian Oxnevad, a program research associate at NAS, said in a June 2022 press statement. “In the wake of laws targeting Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government has deftly reorganized its program.”