At the request of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), with Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a new report on Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes at universities in the United States; the report was released on Wednesday.
“The GAO confirms that China’s censorship of sensitive topics—such as the ‘Three Ts’ of Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen—extends to U.S. schools that host Confucius Institutes,” Smith, Ranking Member of the House global human rights subcommittee, stated. “Rather than our influencing China toward greater respect for free speech and academic freedom, Beijing is pulling our universities toward self-censorship and intellectual acquiescence.”
There are 96 Confucius Institutes at colleges and universities in the U.S. as of December, 2018, according to the GAO. The institutes are partly funded and overseen by Hanban, a program that is part of the Chinese Ministry of Education, and are founded “to promote Chinese language and culture” in partnerships with schools in foreign countries, according to the GAO.
“When tailored by the Chinese government, programs at these institutes can be synonymous with academic malware seeking to influence young minds. Regrettably, the effort is part of China’s long arm of authoritarianism seeking to misrepresent itself to unsuspecting students,” Smith said. “As the report shows, there are serious and well-founded concerns about academic censorship at these institutes.”
Smith had asked for the GAO report to investigate whether or not agreements between China and Confucius Institutes are made public, what pressure or influence is exerted on these academic institutions by the Chinese government, and what concerns exist regarding freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Wednesday’s GAO report studied 90 agreements between Confucius Institutes and schools, and found that almost half, 42 agreements, “contained language about the agreement being confidential or the ability of either party to the agreement to share or release the agreement or other information.” Furthermore, the confidentiality language in these agreements mirrored that of a sample agreement posted on Hanban’s own website.
The GAO, which interviewed officials at 10 U.S. schools with Confucius Institutes, published reports of school officials and researchers expressing serious concerns about China’s influence over Confucius Institutes. These concerns included:
· Funding of Confucius Institutes from the Chinese government could result in academic censorship or the “perception” of academic censorship;
· Hanban’s influence on the hiring process at Confucius Institutes;
· The possible reluctance of schools with Confucius Institutes to host events on issues that could feature criticism of China, such as Tibet, Taiwan, or Tiananmen Square;
· Reluctance of academic officials to apply for Confucius Institute funding for an academic project, because of concerns of Chinese censorship;
· Hanban reportedly supplying materials used at some schools “for other classes, such as non-credit courses, or those offered to the community or at elementary or secondary schools.”
The report also published reported instances of active censorship or intimidation by Confucius Institute or Hanban officials:
· According to one researcher, “the Confucius Institute Chinese director” at the school “allegedly removed literature about Taiwan from another professor’s door.”
· In another reported case from an academic conference, “a Hanban representative tried to remove information on Taiwan from the program provided to conference attendees.”
· In another case, Hanban would not fund a research proposal on environmental studies because it was not a Chinese-related subject matter.
Smith’s request to the GAO came on the heels of two investigative hearings he chaired in 2014 and 2015 on the threat of Chinese influence to academic freedom at U.S. universities. At the December 4, 2014 hearing, and the June 25, 2015 hearing, he outlined serious concerns of Members of Congress, academics, and others about the lack of respect at these Confucius Institutes for free speech and academic freedom, and the influence of the Chinese government in the academic affairs.
Smith has chaired 68 hearings on China’s human rights abuses and influence in foreign countries including the U.S. He authored legislation (HR 6010) last Congress “to require an unclassified interagency report on the political influence operations of the Chinese Government and Communist Party with respect to the United States, and for other purposes.” He is reintroducing the legislation this Congress.