The Insidious Threat of China’s Confucius Institutes
Beijing aims to infiltrate educational institutions abroad — and isn’t shy about it.
Our nation has endured revolution, civil war, world war, and cold war. We have survived every kind of hardship and won. Today, we are in a new kind of war: a war of information.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rise to illegitimate prosperity is one of the greatest threats to the American way of life, and it’s been fueled by the theft and abuse of information at every turn, from intellectual-property theft to unfair trade practices to the spread of propaganda that obscures the CCP’s intentions and covers its tracks.
This is not an abstract phenomenon playing out in the remote realm of geo-politics; it is happening in blatant view of all of us. Right here in our own state of South Carolina, home to some of the nation’s greatest schools and universities, the CCP is exerting — and growing — its influence.
Under the direction of top officials in the CCP’s Office of Overseas Propaganda, China has established a network of 50 so-called Confucius Institutes at American educational institutions. In 2009, Li Changchun, then head of agitprop for the CCP, called these outposts “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Their M.O. is simple: China gives American host institutions cash, and CCP operatives get to teach a distorted, regime-friendly history of the Chinese state to American students. Meanwhile, those same operatives get to live in close proximity to all the resources of our modern research universities, and to important inside information about the sensitive, and often taxpayer-funded, activities of our brightest minds.
American institutions of higher education are not the only targets of the CCP’s influence, however. While Confucius Institutes are often headquartered on university campuses, their reach extends to every level of education. By offering Chinese teachers to schools around the country, the CCP has successfully built a series of ‘Confucius Classrooms’ at many K–12 schools around the country. For thousands of American schoolchildren today, the first exposure to China comes from carefully selected Communist apparatchiks.
This is the threat that our nation faces today: An attack on truth. An attack on our institutions. An attack on our children. An attack on our way of life.
America must wake up to this threat. That is why we are grateful to have led the public charge to expel the malign influence of Confucius Institutes from our state. On February 19, the University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees ratified President Robert L. Caslen’s decision to close the school’s resident Confucius Institute. In addition, the university is taking critical steps to provide greater transparency about its dealings with foreign countries and partners. We welcome these developments and hope that Presbyterian College, which houses South Carolina’s other Confucius Institute, will follow Caslen’s lead.
Still, the war against Communist propaganda will not be won simply by closing America’s Confucius Institutes. It demands a widespread awareness of and defense against foreign efforts to influence and undermine us.
Awareness requires transparency, which means shining a light on foreign influence wherever and however it is exerted. It also requires leadership at every level, from your local school board to the Oval Office — and President Joe Biden’s “business as usual” approach to China just won’t cut it. As one of his first acts in office, President Biden revoked rules proposed by President Trump that would have put pressure on American universities to disclose their foreign ties and funding. We suggest that Biden consult with his nominee for director of the CIA, William Burns, who just last month testified in his Senate confirmation hearings that Confucius Institutes were “a genuine risk” to U.S. security, and said that if he were the president of a university or college that hosted a Confucius Institute, he would shut it down.
FBI director Christopher Wray has warned that the CCP “believes it is in a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership.” Most of us have only known a world in which our nation is without peer. But that world is a privilege, not a birthright, and unless we face up to the challenge of Xi Jinping’s Communist regime, our children will learn the hard way what the alternative is like. Those of us lucky enough to serve in Congress must work to mandate the transparent disclosure of foreign influence in our educational institutions, hold the CCP accountable for intellectual-property theft and unfair trading practices, and protect American interests.
— Ralph Norman is the U.S. representative for South Carolina’s fifth congressional district. Joe Wilson is the U.S. representative for South Carolina’s second congressional district.