Higher Education, Criminal Justice

FBI monitoring Chinese-run Confucius Institutes

February 27, 2018

Mike Brake

The FBI is concerned that an arm of the Chinese government has a major presence on more than 100 American college and university campuses, including the University of Oklahoma, according to recent testimony before a U. S. Senate committee.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 13 that his agency is closely monitoring the Confucius Institutes, one of which is based at OU. Confucius Institutes are staffed and operated largely by an organization called the Hanban, an agency of China’s Ministry of Education.

In effect they are universities within universities, ostensibly providing instruction in Chinese language, history, and culture. An examination by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) noted that most Confucius Institutes operate under secret agreements with their host campuses, even those like OU that are supposed to be subject to open records. Staffing and curriculum is controlled by the Hanban, and in some cases there have been reports of Confucius Institute staff monitoring Chinese students studying in America.

“We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes, we’ve been watching that development for a while,” Wray told the committee. “It’s just one of the many tools that they take advantage of.” Wray then confirmed that the FBI is “watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps.”

Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, also testified before the committee and said, “we have intensive studies going on throughout the intelligence community relative A to Z on what China is doing.”

An OU spokesman said OU’s relationship with its Confucius Institute does not mirror those described by Wray in other states. He said the same rules of transparency and academic freedom that apply to all departments at OU also cover the Confucius Institute.

Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) noted that Confucius Institutes “are complicit in these efforts to covertly influence public opinion and to teach half-truths designed to present Chinese history government or official policy in the most favorable light.”

Committee member Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The NAS report quoted a leading Chinese official as describing the Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

On Feb. 5, Rubio wrote to five Florida universities with Confucius Institutes urging them to cut ties with the organization. “Given China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad, I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement,” he wrote. One, the University of West Florida, agreed to not renew its contract with the Hanban.

The website for the Confucius Institute at OU notes that it was created in 2006 in partnership with Beijing Normal University. It offers on-campus courses and also after-school programs for students from kindergarten through grade six, along with Chinese language programs at the University of Central Oklahoma, Northeastern State University, and a number of public high, middle, and elementary schools.

The website boasts that OU’s is “one of the most comprehensive Confucius Institutes in the nation,” also offering services to businesses interested in trading with China.

Rowdy Gilbert, senior associate vice president for public affairs at OU, defended the Confucius Institute by noting that it “is primarily focused on helping Oklahomans learn the Chinese language. Secondarily, the OUCI introduces people to traditional and contemporary Chinese culture as a way to help them better understand China, allowing for a mutually beneficial relationship to both nations.”

Gilbert said credit courses offered through the Institute “are under the full control and responsibility of the academic unit that offers the courses,” indicating that they are administered by university academic departments.

“Academic freedom at the University of Oklahoma is paramount,” he said. “OUCI, as a component of the university, is fully transparent and bound by OU’s commitment to academic freedom. At no time has anyone from the Chinese consulate, Hanban, Beijing Normal University, or any other Chinese university tried in any way to interfere with the academic integrity of the University of Oklahoma. All of the OU employees associated with the OUCI are hired and evaluated under the policies of OU. Additionally, OUCI follows all applicable laws and policies at the university, municipal, state and federal levels.”