Higher Education

Ray Carter | June 23, 2022

Chinese government maintains presence at OU

Ray Carter

Confucius Institutes, controlled by a Chinese government agency, once flowered on college campuses across the country, including at the University of Oklahoma. But that has changed in recent years, particularly after the U.S. Department of State declared the institutes part of a “global propaganda and malign influence campaign.”

But a new report warns that many colleges and universities still have entities on campus that operate much the same as prior Confucius Institutes, but under new names.

The report warns the University of Oklahoma is among the colleges that still maintain strong ties with Chinese-government-controlled entities.

“The Chinese government is betting that if it takes away the name ‘Confucius Institute’ and tweaks the structure of their program, no one will be the wiser and realize that Chinese government influence remains alive and well on American higher education,” said Rachelle Peterson, senior research fellow at the National Association of Scholars.

Peterson and other officials discussed the findings of the report at an event hosted this week by the Heritage Foundation.

“After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education,” a report from the National Association of Scholars, warns that many colleges still have the equivalent of a Confucius Institute on campus.

Nationwide, there were once 118 Confucius Institutes in operation, with as many as 109 operating simultaneously at colleges, Peterson said. But that number has dropped significantly since 2018 following publicity about the institutes’ activities.

“‘Confucius Institute’ has become an unattractive term, but the Chinese government just looked for a new name,” Peterson said. “It has been making an effort to rebrand its programs.”

Confucius Institutes were once run by the Hanban, a Chinese government agency. But now the Hanban has been renamed the Ministry of Education Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation (CLEC), which has also spun off a separate organization, the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF), that now funds and oversees Confucius Institutes and many of their replacements, Peterson said.

Researchers with the National Association of Scholars found that 28 colleges and universities that reported closing their Confucius Institutes quickly replaced them with “very similar” programs, Peterson said, often operated by the Chinese Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation (CLEC). Another 58 universities and colleges maintained close relationships with the Chinese university that operated the prior Confucius Institute. And five colleges simply recruited a new host for their Confucius Institute.

As a result, many entities have replaced a university’s Confucius Institute with an almost indistinguishable new entity, she said.

“Confucius Institutes have given way to a new form of Chinese government influence,” Peterson said. “It’s an influence that comes under a variety of new names. The Chinese government is too proactive to replace Confucius Institutes with a single, new, monolithic program. Instead, the approach is far more sophisticated. It is far more difficult and time-consuming to track.”

In August 2020, the U.S. Department of State declared that the Confucius Institute U.S. Center was a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China, saying that designation recognized the Confucius Institute U.S. Center “for what it is: an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms. Confucius Institutes are funded by the PRC and part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus.”

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, was among those who praised the department’s action at that time.

The University of Oklahoma had a Confucius Institute on campus starting in 2006. In addition to its work at the university level, the OU Confucius Institute provided “teaching materials, funding to support teaching staff, and tools for Chinese language and culture programs” in K-12 schools around the state, including in the Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Edmond, Norman, Putnam City, Enid, Jenks, Bixby, Union, Owasso, Muskogee, Fort Gibson, Crescent, Lawton, and Comanche school districts.

Many K-12 schools still have Confucius Classrooms—effectively K-12 versions of Confucius Institutes—embedded in those districts, but Peterson said it is not known how many K-12 schools are doing so.

“Nobody has a list of Confucius Classrooms in the country,” Peterson said. “We don’t know how many there are or where they are.”

In 2018, an OU spokesman said the university had received more than $1 million in funding for its Confucius Institute from the Hanban. Donations for the institute were directed to the OU Foundation, an independent not-for-profit corporation, making associated records exempt from the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

Although OU reports having shuttered its Confucius Institute, researchers with the National Association of Scholars found that ties remain.

The report includes an appendix that “tracks the actions of 76 colleges and universities after closing a Confucius Institute.” According to the report, after the reported October 2020 closure of the OU Confucius Institute, the university still maintained a “relationship with Beijing Normal University, having in 2006 signed an agreement with BNU that established not only the CI, but also a number of other partnerships that survive the CI. The university also continues to publish Chinese Literature Today, a journal that originated in a 2016 agreement the university signed with Hanban and Beijing Normal University.”

The report recommends that policymakers adopt several steps to reduce the influence of the Chinese government on U.S. college campuses. Those recommendations including banning some federal funding to universities that maintain a Confucius Institute or similar program, placing a tax on funds institutions receive via Chinese gifts and contracts, capping the amount of Chinese funding a college or university may receive without losing federal funding, and prohibiting funding to colleges that enter into research partnerships with Chinese universities involved in China’s military-civil fusion.

The report also recommends requiring universities to disclose the names of foreign donors and eliminating loopholes that permit foreign institutions to run gifts through foreign agents or university foundations.

While many problems on college campuses are blamed on radical faculty, Keith Whitaker, chairman of the National Association of Scholars, said that is not typically the case when it comes to Confucius Institutes.

“The tenured radicals in the faculty are the cause of many dysfunctions in American higher education, but NAS’s research actually shows that by and large they’ve been pretty cool to Confucius Institutes,” Whitaker said. “Rather, those who opened that door and have continued to try to keep it open are university administrators. For public consumption, they will claim that they are promoting diversity. In reality, the great attraction is Chinese government money and flattery.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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