Grassley to Schools: Confucius Institutes are Fronts for Chinese Propaganda; just ask FBI

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Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) today issued a warning to all 77 colleges, universities and school districts with known active Confucius Institutes on campus: know who you’re dealing with.  Grassley is urging each school to request an FBI briefing to fully understand the academic research and national security threats posed by the Chinese government-backed organizations operating on campus.

“U.S. Government agencies, including within the Intelligence Community, assert that the Communist Chinese Government uses Confucius Institutes embedded in our academic institutions as a propaganda tool within the United States. Despite these concerns, your institution’s website indicates that a Confucius Institute is active on your campus,” Grassley wrote in a letter to leaders of each institution.

“To that end, meeting with federal law enforcement experts and receiving additional information from the FBI is imperative for a full understanding of the risks to both your institution and our national security.”

Confucius Institutes are billed as education centers for Chinese language and culture. However, federal authorities have warned that the institutes are designed to influence U.S. policy and public opinion. The institutes are reportedly funded by the division of the Chinese government responsible for foreign influence operations, and the Chinese government has admitted that they are a part of China’s overall propaganda apparatus.

At a 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on China’s non-traditional espionage against the United States, FBI and Justice Department officials testified about threats posed to research labs and universities by researchers with “undisclosed ties to Chinese institutions and conflicted loyalties.” They also cautioned that China encourages theft of intellectual property from U.S. institutions. A 2019 Finance Committee hearing focused specifically on the threats China poses to taxpayer-funded research. A FY2019 Defense Department funding bill prohibited federal funding from being used to support Confucius Institutes.

Grassley also raised concerns about the Justice Department’s apparent failure to require Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Letter text:

March 10, 2020

VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION

I write to you today to express my concern about Confucius Institutes within our academic system, including colleges and universities.[1]  U.S. Government agencies, including within the Intelligence Community, assert that the Communist Chinese Government uses Confucius Institutes embedded in our academic institutions as a propaganda tool within the United States.[2]   Despite these concerns, your institution’s website indicates that a Confucius Institute is active on your campus.  I am writing to encourage you and key members of your staff to request and schedule a briefing with your local Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) field office and become proactively involved in better understanding the national security threats posed by Confucius Institutes and the Chinese Government to our Nation’s academic and research institutions.

My staff have received classified and unclassified briefings outlining the threats posed by the Chinese Government generally, and Confucius Institutes specifically.  Based upon information gathered from unclassified briefings, we know that Confucius Institutes are an arm of the Chinese Government and are overseen by the Office of Chinese Language International (Hanban), which is part of the Chinese Ministry of Education.  The Hanban is composed of members from twelve state ministries including its propaganda outlets.[3]  Confucius Institutes are also reportedly funded by the United Front Work Department, a Chinese Government agency that coordinates foreign influence operations.[4]  The activities of Confucius Institutes are inherently political in nature and intended to influence U.S. policy and public opinion.

As a government entity, Confucius Institutes are controlled and managed by government officials and act as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Government.  In 2011, Li Changchun, a member of the Chinese Government, stated:

The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad.  It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power.  The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness.  Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.[5]

That same individual also said that Confucius Institutes are an “important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”[6]  Not surprisingly, a member of China’s propaganda ministry reportedly said:

Coordinate the efforts overseas and domestic propaganda, further create a favorable international environment for us…[w]ith regard to key issues that influence our sovereignty and safety, we should actively carry out international propaganda battles against issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Human Rights, and Falun Gong.  Our strategy is to proactively take our culture abroad…[w]e should do well in establishing and operating overseas cultural centers and Confucius Institutes.[7]

In light of these concerns, I wrote to DOJ in September 2018 asking why it had yet to require officials connected to Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).[8]  That law is critical to identifying agents operating within the United States on behalf of foreign principals, and I recently reintroduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen the law, the Foreign Agents Disclosure and Registration Enhancement Act (S.1762).[9]  In addition, in December 2018, I convened a hearing as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee regarding China’s non-traditional espionage against the United States.[10]  In that hearing, DOJ and FBI officials made clear that the threat to our universities and taxpayer-funded research from foreign governments is known and ongoing.  For example, the DOJ witness, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers, stated, “we need to adapt our enforcement strategy to reach non-traditional collectors, including researchers in labs, universities, and the defense industrial base, some of whom may have undisclosed ties to Chinese institutions and conflicted loyalties.”[11]  The FBI witness, then-Assistant Director for the Counterintelligence Division Bill Priestap, stated that China’s talent recruitment programs are effectively “brain gain programs” that “encourage theft of intellectual property from U.S. institutions.”[12]

You may also be aware that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019 included a provision that addresses Congress’ distrust of China’s role within Confucius Institutes on American campuses.[13]  Specifically, it prohibits federal funds from being spent for Chinese language instruction provided by a Confucius Institute.[14]

Concerns are echoed by academic associations and many institutions that have already discontinued their affiliation with Confucius Institutes.  Both the American Association of University Professors and the National Association of Scholars have independently detailed how Confucius Institutes restrict academic freedom and promote an agenda tailored by the Chinese Government for the benefit of the Chinese Communist party.[15]  In response to a variety of concerns over affronts to academic freedom, and the direct control of Confucius Institutes by the Chinese Government, over twenty Confucius Institutes within the United States have been expelled from institutions of higher education.[16]

Moreover, the Chinese Government has taken serious steps toward stealing our intellectual property from taxpayer-funded research projects.  We must ensure that our universities and taxpayer-funded research projects remain at the forefront of the global market and free from malicious foreign influence.[17]  On June 5, 2019, I convened a Senate hearing titled, “Foreign Threats to Taxpayer-Funded Research: Oversight Opportunities and Policy Solutions.”[18]  This hearing laid out the importance of “properly balancing the robust development and exchange of ideas in the research field with reasonable and proportionate common-sense efforts to protect the integrity of [academic] research.”[19]  Such efforts must be a whole-of-government approach and every department and agency must take all necessary and reasonable steps to be proper stewards of the taxpayers’ money. That requires government to protect its research projects from any foreign interference or influence that could result in damage to or theft of American intellectual property.  The private sector has the same responsibility.

Your institution’s relationship with Confucius Institutes should be based on a clear understanding of the risks.  To that end, meeting with federal law enforcement experts and receiving additional information from the FBI is imperative for a full understanding of the risks to both your institution and our national security.  Please inform me when your relevant officials have requested and received an FBI briefing on this critical national security matter.  If I have not heard from you by March 31, 2020, I will follow up with you.

Should you have questions, please contact Joshua Flynn-Brown of my Committee staff at 202-224-4515. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

 

Charles E. Grassley

Chairman

Senate Committee on Finance

[1] See Foreign Threats to Taxpayer-Funded Research: Oversight Opportunities and Policy Solutions Hearing Before the S. Comm. on Finance, 116th Cong. (2019), available at https://www.finance.senate.gov/hearings/foreign-threats-to-taxpayer_funded-research-oversight-opportunities-and-policy-solutions; China’s Impact on the U.S. Education System Hearing Before the Permanent Subcomm. on Investigations, 116th Cong. (2019), available at https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/investigations/hearings/chinas-impact-on-the-us-education-system;  Letter from Senator Grassley, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, to the Honorable Jeff Sessions, Attorney General, Dep’t of Justice (Sept. 19, 2018), available at https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/grassley-presses-doj-fara-and-china-s-activity-us-education-system; Senator Grassley, Iowa not immune to foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research, (June 3, 2019), available at https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/commentary/grassley-op-ed-iowa-not-immune-foreign-threats-taxpayer-funded-research.

[2] See Staff of S. Comm. on Homeland Security Government, 116th Cong., Rep. on China’s Impact on the U.S. Education System (Comm. Print 2019) available at https://www.portman.senate.gov/sites/default/files/PSI%20Report%20China%27s%20Impact%20on%20the%20US%20Education%20System.pdf; Thomas Lum, Cong. Research Serv., IF11180, Confucius Institutes in the United States: Selected Issues (2019), available at https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11180; Ethan Epstein, How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms, Politico (Jan. 17, 2018), available at https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/16/how-china-infiltrated-us-classrooms-216327; Eric Shawn, China trying to infiltrate US colleges to recruit spies, indoctrinate students, intelligence agencies say, Fox News (Feb. 7, 2019), available at https://www.foxnews.com/us/china-infiltrating-us-colleges-to-recruit-spies-indoctrinate-students-intelligence-agencies-say; Rachelle Peterson, American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse, Foreign Policy (May 9, 2017), available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/09/american-universities-are-welcoming-chinas-trojan-horse-confucius-institutes/.

[3] Rachelle Peterson, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, National Association of Scholars (April 2017) at 22, available at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED580866.pdf.

[4] Alexander Bowe, U.S.-China Econ. and Sec. Review Comm’n, China’s Overseas United Front Work Background and Implications for the United States (2018). available at https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/China’s%20Overseas%20United%20Front%20Work%20-%20Background%20and%20Implications%20for%20US_final_0.pdf. “To carry out its influence activities abroad, the UFWD directs “overseas Chinese work,” which seeks to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and communities living outside China, while a number of other key affiliated organizations guided by China’s broader United Front strategy conduct influence operations targeting foreign actors and states.”

[5] Ethan Epstein, How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms, Politico (Jan. 17, 2018).  available at https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/16/how-china-infiltrated-us-classrooms-216327.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.  See also Marshall Sahlins, Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware¸ The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 12, Issue 46 (Nov. 16, 2014), available at https://apjjf.org/2014/12/46/Marshall-Sahlins/4220.html.

[8]  Senator Grassley, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, to the Honorable Jeff Sessions, Attorney General, Dep’t of Justice (Sept. 19, 2018), available at https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/grassley-presses-doj-fara-and-china-s-activity-us-education-system.

[9] Press Release (June 10, 2019), available at https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/grassley-leads-bipartisan-bill-boost-disclosure-foreign-lobbying.

[10] China’s Non-Traditional Espionage Against the United States: The Threat and Potential Policy Responses Before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong. (2018), available at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/chinas-non-traditional-espionage-against-the-united-states-the-threat-and-potential-policy-responses.

[11] Id. at 8 (statement of John Demers, Assistant Att’y Gen., Department of Justice), https://www.judiciary. senate.gov/ imo/media/doc/12-12-18%20Demers%20Testimony.pdf.

[12] Id. at 5 (statement of E.W. “Bill” Priestap, Assistant Director, Counterintelligence Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation), https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/12-12-18%20Priestap%20Testimony .pdf.

[13]John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 PL 115-232, August 13, 2018, 132 Stat 1636, available at https://www.congress.gov/115/bills/hr5515/BILLS-115hr5515enr.pdf.

[14] Id at Section 1091.

[15] Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, On Partnerships with Foreign Governments: The Case of Confucius Institutes, American Association of University Professors available at https://www.aaup.org/report/confucius-institutes; Rachelle Peterson, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, National Association of Scholars (April 2017) at 22, available at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED580866.pdf

[16] How many Confucius Institutes Are in the United States?, National Association of Scholars (Dec. 18, 2019) available at https://www.nas.org/blogs/dicta/how_many_confucius_institutes_are_in_the_united_states; Mike Ottone & Sunyu Kang, Confucius Institute Set to Close in Early 2020, The Review (Oct. 8, 2019), available at http://udreview.com/confucius-institute-set-to-close-in-early-2020/; Elizabeth Redden, Closing Confucius Institutes, Inside Higher Ed (Jan. 9, 2019), available at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/01/09/colleges-move-close-chinese-government-funded-confucius-institutes-amid-increasing.

[17] Foreign Threats to Taxpayer-Funded Research: Oversight Opportunities and Policy Solutions Before the S. Comm. on Finance, 116th Cong. (2019), available at https://www.finance.senate.gov/hearings/foreign-threats-to-taxpayer_funded-research-oversight-opportunities-and-policy-solutions.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

Author: Charles Grassley

Chuck Grassley of New Hartford has represented Iowa in the United States Senate since 1980.