Biden team questions Congress’ fear of Confucius Institutes

Opening congressionally mandated review of Chinese educational centres, Pentagon official pushes lawmakers to concentrate on bigger challenges

April 13, 2022
Great Wall of China
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The Biden administration is challenging Congress over its bipartisan hostility to Confucius Institutes in US higher education, prodding lawmakers to show greater balance in their assessment of security threats.

Opening a congressionally mandated expert review of the Chinese government-sponsored language and culture programmes, a top Pentagon official repeatedly cautioned against letting vague political fears drive US policies toward education and national security.

“It is not necessarily always bad that we have foreign funding on campuses,” Bindu Nair, the director of basic research at the US Department of Defense, told the panel of academic specialists assembled by the National Academy of Sciences. “I don’t think that a blanket ban is a good idea in general,” Dr Nair added.

Chinese leaders have operated Confucius Institutes on campuses in dozens of countries, providing schools at varying tiers of education with free courses in return for the opportunity to influence thinking about their nation and its people.

The Institutes became especially controversial in the US in recent years as political relations with China deteriorated. Participating US colleges and universities have dropped from more than 100 to fewer than 20, with an especially sharp decline after Congress in 2018 imposed a general ban on the Pentagon funding Chinese language programmes at universities that also host a Confucius Institute.

The National Academy of Sciences review panel is being chaired by Philip Hanlon, the outgoing president of Dartmouth College. He brought in Dr Nair for the opening public session of an expected year-and-a-half calibration of future US policy toward the Confucius Institutes and similar entities, including the circumstances in which the Pentagon should exercise its right to grant exemptions under the 2018 law.

Dr Nair – along with some members of the National Academy’s panel of academic experts – made clear that their response to Congress should include some questioning of whether the Confucius Institutes deserve the heated political attention they have been attracting.

One of those members, Ivett Leyva, a professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, said the typical Confucius Institute curriculum seems to be largely a matter of teaching students Mandarin or trying to “make everybody become a fan of tai chi”.

Another, Hannah Buxbaum, a professor of law and vice-president for international affairs at Indiana University, warned against quick rejections of the Confucius Institutes model, since most universities available for US partnerships around the world also have close ties to their governments.

“You’ve hit what my huge concern with this whole possible area is,” Dr Nair told Professor Buxbaum. “It was a hard thing for us to figure out,” she said of their mutual confusion over the panel’s assignment from Congress to identify any entities that are similar to the Confucius Institutes. “Which is why I’m glad that you’re doing it for us,” Dr Nair said.

US lawmakers from both major parties have expressed concerns over the Confucius Institutes that include the refusal of China to host similar US-funded operations. But Republicans have been especially active on the topic, with the Trump administration citing the Institutes as a key factor in its demand that US colleges and universities comply more precisely with longstanding federal rules requiring the disclosure of all financial ties to foreign entities. The Biden administration has retreated from that position.

A leading outside expert, David Shambaugh, a professor of Asian studies, political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said he had examined official Confucius Institute curricula and found no propaganda in them. Propaganda has been seen in classrooms teaching Chinese culture, but that problem could be either monitored or avoided by limiting instruction to language, said Professor Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington.

Dr Nair acknowledged additional concerns with Confucius Institutes that include their alleged use in constraining the free-speech rights of Chinese students on US campuses. But critics with those fears and others – including the possibility of Confucius Institutes being used to recruit academic talent to China – should offer clear policies that apply to all countries, she said.

“International relations are very easy to attack,” Dr Nair said, “but they’re also vital to the success of the scientific enterprise.”

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