WASHINGTON – As experts spotlight China’s military buildup to challenge the United State as the world’s superpower, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that China is also using soft power to quietly achieve this goal.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat on their end,” Wray testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee late last month.
During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., brought up Confucius Institutes as an example of how he thinks China is manipulating Americans’ thinking and attitudes through higher education.
“There is mounting concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to use ‘Confucius Institute’ and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China’s past history and present policies,” Rubio wrote in a letter to the five Florida schools with Confucius Institutes urging them to shut down the Chinese learning centers in early February.
Confucius Institutes are Chinese learning centers hosted on college campuses throughout the world. The centers are financed by the host colleges and Hanban, an education organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China.
Confucius Institutes offer Chinese language, culture and history classes catered to middle schoolers, high schoolers, university students and members of the community.
The first institute was opened in 2004 in Seoul. Since then, a total of 525 Confucius Institutes have flourished in 138 countries, including 110 centers in the U.S. Their stated aim is to “promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.”
Some critics argue that because these institutions are partially funded by a Chinese governmental agency, they teach curriculum that furthers a Chinese nationalist interest.
“Confucius Institutes tend to present China in a positive light and to focus on anodyne aspects of Chinese culture,” Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at the right-leaning National Association of Scholars, wrote in a 2017 study on Confucius Institutes.
“They avoid Chinese political history… and develop a generation of American students with selective knowledge of a major country,” she wrote.
Christopher Heselton, associate director for the Confucius Institute at the University of Nebraska, said every Confucius Institute is different — teaching different curriculum to different demographics — and cannot all be lumped in as the same entity.
“We provide resources for teaching Chinese for middle and high schools,” he said. “Not all Institutes do that. Some are active in teaching at the university level and some provide cultural events in the community.”
Controversies surrounding these institutions heightened in 2011, after Li Changchun, former senior leader of the Communist Party in China, said:“The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
Critics of these institutions fear that because the Chinese government has a role in financing the institutions and some say over the curriculum, they can utilize this power against Americans. Some critics feel that no foreign government should have any influence over American higher education.
The controversies prompted a number of schools to shut down the Confucius Institutions on their campuses. The University of Chicago was the first university to do so.
University of Chicago Professor Bruce Lincoln, one of the petition organizers to terminate the institute, said his main concern was to “preserve the academic integrity of my university and to keep it from subcontracting responsibility for courses to interested parties.”
“Permitting the Confucius Institute to determine the curriculum for classes in Chinese seemed to me comparable to having tobacco companies sponsor classes in toxicology or having oil companies sponsor those in climate science,” he said.
Lincoln was less concerned about the political implications of allowing the Confucius Institute to operate on campus than breaching academic freedom at the university by allowing Beijing a role in deciding the curriculum.
“Cultures do influence one another in all sorts of ways, sometimes intentionally and more often not, but I see no need, nor any viable way to ‘defend’ our culture against foreign influence from China or elsewhere.”
However, many Confucius Institutes faculty members do not agree that these institutes pose a threat to America nor do they all report to the Chinese government.
Heselton teaches Chinese history at the Confucius Institute and said that he disagrees with critics’ claims that these institutes teach propaganda.
“I’m a historian, I teach Chinese history. I am not a Chinese government employee. I don’t take direction from any Chinese official,” Heselton said.
The Asian Americans Advancing Justice organization penned a letter three days after Wray testified before the Senate, demanding a meeting with him to address his comments.
“As civil rights organizations rooted in fighting discrimination against Asians in the United States, we find FBI Director Christopher Wray’s recent comments reprehensible,” the statement read.
“We cannot have every Chinese student or scientist assumed guilty until proven innocent of a national security threat.”
Wray has not yet responded to the AAAJ’s letter.