House Proposal Targets Confucius Institutes as Foreign Agents

The draft bill is the first legislative attempt to push back against the Chinese state-run programs.

Chinese consular staff wave national flags in front of a demonstration by supporters of the Falungong spiritual movement outside the venue where China's Vice President Xi Jinping was opening Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute, at the RMIT University in Melbourne on June 20, 2010. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese consular staff wave national flags in front of a demonstration by supporters of the Falungong spiritual movement outside the venue where China's Vice President Xi Jinping was opening Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute, at the RMIT University in Melbourne on June 20, 2010. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

A new draft proposal in the House of Representatives seeks to require China’s cultural outposts in the United States, the Confucius Institutes, to register as foreign agents.

The effort, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), targets any foreign funding at U.S. universities that aims to promote the agenda of a foreign government.

“The bottom line is transparency,” Wilson tells Foreign Policy in an interview. 

The draft bill does not single out Confucius Institutes by name, but according to Wilson it will apply to the Chinese government-run programs, which offer language and culture classes on more than 100 American college and university campuses. The institutes have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months due to their sometimes heavy-handed attempts to censor discussion of topics that the Chinese Communist Party deems off-limits, leading to growing concerns about academic freedom.

Wilson’s initiative would clarify language in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a Nazi-era law intended to combat foreign propaganda. FARA requires organizations and individuals engaged in lobbying or public discourse on behalf of a foreign government to register with the Department of Justice, and to disclose their funding and the scope of their activities. FARA does not prohibit such funding or activities but rather seeks to provide transparency about the true source of the messaging.

As currently written, FARA includes an exemption for “bona fide” academic and scholastic pursuits, but what is meant by “bona fide” is not clearly spelled out. The draft proposal would redefine what is meant by a bona fide academic pursuit to exclude any foreign-funded endeavor that promotes the agenda of a foreign government. If enacted, the legislation would, in turn, trigger mandatory registration for the institutes, though it would not interfere with their activities.

“The goal is transparency by the foreign agents themselves and also by the universities,” Wilson says. “The American people need to know that they are being provided propaganda.”

Wilson joins a growing number of lawmakers to express concerns about the Chinese state-funded programs. In February, Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called on his state’s schools to close their Confucius Institutes, citing “China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad.” And last week, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, sent a letter to 40 colleges and universities in his state, urging them to close their Confucius Institutes or refrain from opening them in the first place.

The Chinese Communist Party has openly said that Confucius Institutes are used for propaganda. Former top party official Li Changchun has referred to the institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

“Confucius Institutes in the U.S. have been fully complying [with] the university policies and requirement as open and transparent initiatives,” said Gao Qing, executive director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington. “It is wise to further comprehend Confucius Institutes’ operations and impact through people who [are involved with] and participate in the programs, not through speculations. The conclusion should not be drawn upon unfounded allegations.”

The draft proposal is the first legislative measure to address Confucius Institutes, according to Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the nonprofit Center for International Policy. It is also the first that targets FARA’s academic exemption.

“This is an important issue of language clarification for the FARA statute,” Freeman says. Certain key portions of FARA are written in vague language, causing “a lot of confusion for transparency groups and also for people who think they might have to register but aren’t sure.”

On the surface, Confucius Institutes are analogous to Germany’s Goethe-Institut or France’s Alliance Française, which both receive government funding to teach language and culture classes. But the Chinese programs are embedded in American schools, unlike their freestanding European counterparts, and at times institute staff have sought to block host universities from holding discussions on sensitive political topics such as Tibet or Taiwan.

Within Confucius Institutes, “there is a very strong understanding that certain topics are off limits,” said Rachelle Peterson, the author of a 2017 study about the institutes published by the National Association of Scholars. “To speak about China in a Confucius Institute is to speak about the good things. The other things don’t exist as far as the Confucius Institute is concerned.”

A lack of transparency has made it difficult to assess exactly how much control universities have over Confucius Institute management and curricula, or how much money each school receives from the Chinese government. Agreements between institutes and their host institutions are not typically disclosed; much of what is known about specific conditions come from leaked contracts or from Freedom of Information Act requests filed by journalists.

The draft proposal also seeks to strengthen foreign funding disclosure requirements for universities themselves. Section 117 of the Higher Education Act currently requires universities to disclose any foreign funding and contributions exceeding $250,000; the proposal would lower that amount.

Wilson emphasizes that he strongly supports Chinese language education. “My dad served in China during World War II, so I grew up in a family that truly has a deep affection for the people of China,” Wilson tells FP.

“When I first saw the Confucius Institutes, I thought, hey this is good, we want a good and positive relationship with the people of China,” he says. “But it needs to be known that it has a propaganda side too.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr