China’s Academic Soft Power

In his Art of War, the Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu (544-496 B.C.) noted the value of adaptability and formlessness when seeking advantage in different terrains. Two of Sun Tzu’s maxims, that warfare, like water, has no “constant condition,” and the need to defeat an enemy without fighting, characterize Beijing’s subversion of American higher education. 

In order to shape the views of students with propaganda, silence dissent, and facilitate economic espionage, Beijing established Confucius Institutes (CIs) around the United States and around the world. While the United States and other countries moved to shutter CIs in order to curtail the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, CIs have followed Sun Tzu’s adage and emulate water by rebranding and re-housing themselves in order to survive. Rather than close, CIs continue exerting Beijing’s soft power around the globe. Our report, After Confucius Institutes, confirmed that CIs are very much alive and well. 

Ostensibly an innocuous Chinese language and culture program for students abroad to learn Mandarin, CIs consist of partnerships between a foreign host institution, a university in China, and agreements between the host and the Chinese government. Beginning in 2005, China opened 118 CIs around the United States. It was not long, however, before criticism began to mount over American higher education’s deepening ties with Beijing. 

Notably, within the ivory tower, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sounded the alarm in 2014 about ties between universities and Beijing. The AAUP noted that unlike foreign language programs headquartered in other countries, CIs threaten the independence of the university due to “third-party control” and their inconsistency with the “principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and institutional autonomy.” 

Four years later, in 2018, FBI director Christopher Wray noted the profound naiveté on the part of U.S. academics given the presence of Chinese intelligence assets on multiple campuses nationwide. CIs always served to do more than teach language. Beginning in 2018, CIs began to rapidly close, with 104 of them officially shutting down. Yet, like water, Beijing’s influence in academia adapted. 

Rather than retreat, or let CIs quietly pass away, Beijing rebranded its soft-power operations in the operational domain of American education. Due to the withering attention that its CI initiative received, China renamed bureaucracy to coordinate CIs. Originally named Hanban, Beijing rebranded its lead-CI oversight agency into two separate bodies: the Ministry of Education Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation (CLEC), and the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF). In the United States, 28 colleges and universities replaced their CIs with similar programs, while another 58 retained ties with their Chinese sister-campuses. Confucius Classrooms, the K-12 version of CIs, remained largely unscathed from the toxic publicity and criticism levied at CIs and remain open. 

Depressingly for national security and sovereignty in higher education, the least common reason schools cited for closing their CIs was concern about ties with the Chinese government. Of the 10 most common reasons colleges and universities offered, our report found that most prevalent excuse was that the CI would be replaced by a new or similar program. 

For example, we found that Northern State University closed its CI in 2019, only to pen a new agreement with CLEC for it to continue subsidizing teachers from China to come to the United States. Similarly, Georgia State University maintained its partnership with Beijing Language and Culture University and established a new language program the same month that the CI ended. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Georgia State’s CI staff simply shifted to the new program rather than face dismissal. 

The second most-cited reason for closing CIs was the passage of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which forced universities to choose between Chinese language funding from the Department of Defense and the school’s CI. Yet, even in cases where policy induced the closure of a CI, the program was sometimes handed off to the K-12 system. 

While the CI at Western Kentucky University (WKU) ended on campus in 2019, the program itself trasferred to local schools. Regarding the CI, Western Kentucky University openly stated its desire to “keep this program alive” by brokering an agreement with the school district in nearby Simpson County. Openly renamed the Confucius Institute of Western Kentucky, the un-dead CI from WKU outlined its plan to teach 22,000 K-12 students across the state. 

Amid other contemporary divisions in the politics of education, such as the inclusion of critical race theory and gender identity in the classroom, China’s presence in American schools largely remains off of the radar of most policymakers and activists. Simpson County’s CI program, as part of Beijing’s “Confucius Classrooms” initiative, is but one of an estimated 500 functioning around the country. Like water, China’s soft-power assault on students in the United States slipped through the cracks of efforts to stop it. 

The passage of the NDAA was move in the right direction to finally shut down the Confucius Institutes. Forcing schools to choose between federal funding and dollars from China compelled administrators across the country finally to show their hand or risk losing precious taxpayer dollars. But more can be done. Levying a tax on funds received from China by U.S. colleges and universities, prohibiting partnerships between U.S. institutions and their Chinese counterparts in sensitive areas related to science and technology would go farther in addressing the threat CIs pose.

Similarly, forcing transparency upon schools by eliminating disclosure thresholds in Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, and closing loopholes related to foreign gifts, would reestablish the accountability that U.S. institutions owe to the public. A federally funded study of Confucius Classrooms would likewise empower local citizens to better understand China’s presence in American schools. 

Ultimately, no major Chinese university operates independently from the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. In order to de-fang Beijing’s influence in American academia, ostensibly “educational” relationships must be treated as partnerships between U.S. administrators and a foreign power. The Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) exempts individuals engaged in “scholastic, academic, and scientific” activities. Such exemptions do not apply, however, when someone is engaged in fulfilling the interests of a foreign principal. In this case, that foreign principal is the Chinese Communist Party. 

By preserving CIs, rebranding them, and engaging in agreements with Chinese universities, American college administrators are interacting with a foreign government and fulfilling its national interests. Forcing such administrators to register as foreign agents would add needed disincentives to partnering with Beijing in the first place. If China’s educational soft power is like water, it is best to turn up the heat and make it turn into steam. 

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About Ian Oxnevad

Dr. Ian Oxnevad is a research associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Photo: Westbrook Middle School Chinese New Year celebration sponsored by the Chinese and American Friendship Association of Maine and the Confucius Institute of the University of Southern Maine on February 6, 2016. (Photo by Gregory Rec via Getty Images)