Senate Hearing, Reports Look at Chinese Impact on U.S. Universities
Published: March 04, 2019

A Senate subcommittee held a hearing last Thursday on “China’s Impact on the U.S. Education System,” the latest effort in Congress’s scrutiny of Chinese influence at U.S. colleges and universities. 

The issue of security and foreign influence has been on the agendas of both the Trump administration and Congress for well over a year now. The administration, concerned about China’s growing influence, has been looking into ways to protect sensitive research and academic freedom at American universities and research institutes. Last June, the State Department announced it would restrict visas for Chinese graduate students in several sensitive research fields. 

In addition, last year Congress passed legislation that required any institution with a Confucius Institute (CI) and a Department of Defense funded Chinese language program to seek a waiver demonstrating a fire wall between the programs.  

For their part, the House and Senate have held a series of hearings to look into potential problems, with some of the scrutiny centered on CIs. CIs have a presence on 97 U.S. campuses as of February 2019, with a stated aim of promoting Chinese language and culture and facilitating cultural exchange. 

In his opening remarks at this latest hearing, Rob Portman (R-OH), chair of the  Senate Homeland Security and Government Accountability Committee Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, mentioned that ACE has recommended best practices regarding transparent operations of CIs. He said he supports cultural exchange and engagement with China but that there must be reciprocity and transparency, and importantly, the law must be followed. 

The subcommittee released a report by Portman and Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) ahead of the hearing, the result of an eight-month investigation gathered through surveys and visits to higher education institutions with existing or former CIs. The report recommended that without full transparency about how CIs function and full reciprocity for U.S. cultural outreach efforts at Chinese universities, these institutes should not continue operating on U.S. campuses. 

Inside Higher Ed noted the Senate report found that China has directly provided more than $158 million to U.S. universities to host Confucius Institutes since 2006 and that supporters of CIs say the Institutes offer critical resources for foreign language learning at a time when such resources are hard to find. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, the Senate report did not find evidence connecting CIs with Chinese espionage, but rather focused on what the paper described as “systemic problems in the institute’s language programs, saying they lack transparency, threaten academic freedom, and give the Chinese government access to the U.S. education system that China does not extend to American programs.”

Coverage by the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets noted that about a dozen CIs have closed or given notice of closing, while other universities are deciding whether to renew their contracts. It also referenced a letter ACE sent in July 2018 to the presidents of institutions with CIs alerting them to bipartisan national security concerns about the centers and encouraging them to assess their programs and share those evaluations and any resulting changes in policies with key audiences, such as elected officials.  

The committee made a series of recommendations to increase security and transparency around CIs, including that the State Department should review all active Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms for compliance with visa regulations, standards, and practices, and demand reciprocal and fair treatment of its diplomats and employees in China. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a separate report on Wednesday that was not as critical of CIs as the Senate’s. Among the key findings:

  • Officials at 10 case study institutions said that they control curriculum and materials used at their Confucius Institutes. All Confucius Institute directors were U.S. school employees who felt they–not China–had control of the institute. 
  • No direct federal funding was identified as being used at Confucius Institutes the GAO reviewed.
  • One-third of the 90 agreements between U.S. institutions and China reviewed contained language about U.S. school policies or academic freedom. Nearly half of the agreements contained confidentiality language, though approaches to disclosing the agreements vary. 
  • Institution officials, researchers, and others suggested ways to improve CI management, such as by renegotiating agreements to clarify U.S. institutions’ authority and making agreements publicly available.