International focus on the foreign influence efforts of China’s Communist Party (CCP) has intensified in recent years, with defence and security departments taking a closer look at the myriad ways Beijing allegedly tries to infiltrate societies of friend and foe alike.
A focus of such investigations has been the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture, and have been popping up on university campuses around the globe. According to their website, there are currently over 480 institutes operating on six continents.
It has long been known the learning facilities are a crucial tool in China’s soft power mission, but concerns about academic freedom and the institutes close links to the United Front – the secretive arm of the CCP that tries to promote the party’s policies overseas – has led universities to think twice about their association with the organisation.
In a recent announcement, the United States Department of Defence said it would no longer fund Chinese-language programmes at universities that host Confucius Institutes. This is the result of ruling last year in which US Congress ended Pentagon support for the Chinese flagship programmes, unless the Defence Department grants a waiver.
Despite just 13 institutions applying for waivers, none were granted and, according to Newsweek, the Pentagon has no intention of issuing them in the future, citing “national interest” concerns.
“The law stipulates that the under-secretary of defence for personnel and readiness may grant waivers to the limitation according to the conditions outlined in the law,” Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said.
“However, after review, the department has determined that it is not in the national interest to grant waivers to this provision.”
The backlash has led to a dramatic decline in Confucius Institutes in the United States as universities are forced to choose between Chinese funding or US government funding for their language programmes.
In the last two weeks alone, San Francisco State University, the University of Oregon, and Western Kentucky University all announced they would close their institutes after the Defence Department declined their request for a waiver.
That brings the total number of universities that have announced closures over the past 15 months to at least 15.
In a statement released last week, Oregon said closing the Confucius Institute was necessary to protect the US-funded Chinese Language Flagship programme, which has received nearly US$3.8 million in grants from the Defence Department since the 2016-17 academic year.
The university claims the Defence Department has withheld US$343,000 in funding for Oregon students to study or intern in China pending the Confucius Institute’s closure.
At its peak, close to 100 American universities hosted Confucius Institutes, but issues around censorship, intellectual property theft, and what Senator Ted Cruz calls “academic espionage,” the pressure proved too much for many.
Concerns spring from the fact the Chinese government mostly manages the Confucius Institutes’ curriculums, events, budgets and staffing, reportedly requiring Chinese teachers to sign contracts saying they won’t damage China’s “national interests.”
A February report by the US Senate found that “Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom,” reporting that branches of the institute operate with “little-to-no transparency.”
As one US school administrator explained to the Senate Subcommittee, when something is “funded by the Chinese government, you know what you’re getting.”