China’s return to college campuses: Communist-backed Confucius Institutes renew bid to shape American minds

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Colleges and universities across America shut the doors to their Confucius Institutes over the past several years amid growing criticism of the centers’ funding connection to the Chinese communist government, but some are now reopening their doors under a different name while continuing to accept money from the Chinese Communist Party.

Confucius Institutes are typically found on college and university campuses with few exceptions operating inside K-12 school districts. Their self-described goal is to offer instruction to students on Chinese language and culture as tensions between the Chinese government and the United States reach a level not seen in decades, and as intelligence officials warn the instruction on language and culture is merely a guise under which the communist party seeks to propagandize within the walls of America’s classrooms.

During a U.S. Senate hearing in 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that Confucius Institutes are a “source of concern” and are part of China’s “soft power strategy.” 

“Those offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda to encourage censorship to restrict academic freedom,” Wray said.

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Red flags flutter in front of the Great Hall of the People on March 4, 2022, in Beijing, China.

Red flags flutter in front of the Great Hall of the People on March 4, 2022, in Beijing, China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Amid criticism from politicians and government leaders, dozens of American colleges and universities announced the Confucius Institutes operating on their campuses would close their doors. The National Association of Scholars states that the 118 Confucius Institutes that once operated in the U.S. has since shrunk to just 18.

But as at least 100 colleges and universities have closed their Confucius Institutes, effectively ending those agreements with entities of the Chinese Communist Party, a number of educational institutions have since entered new agreements with the Chinese government, according to one recent report by the National Association of Scholars.

Georgia State University, for example, closed its Confucius Institute in July 2020. In the same month, according to the report, a new agreement between the university and Beijing Language and Culture University, the former partner school for the Confucius Institute, was signed for a new program: the Chinese Language and Culture Program.

The newly signed agreements forming the Chinese Language and Culture Program contain provisions such as “better protections for intellectual freedom,” but the Chinese-government sponsored university still helps staff the program, according to the report.

Western Michigan University, whose Confucius Institute closed on Dec. 31, 2020, signed a new agreement with its former Confucius Institute partner in China, Beijing Language and Culture University, a contract that went into effect just one day after the Confucius Institute closed, according to the report.

Beijing Language and Culture University, under the new contract, is responsible for sending a scholar and paying that scholar’s salary, housing costs and other expenses. Western Michigan University provides space for the new program, assists with obtaining a visa for the scholar handpicked by the Chinese government, and provides unspecified “fiscal support,” according to the report.

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Students at Western Michigan University.

Students at Western Michigan University. (Western Michigan University/Facebook)

The Chinese-government sponsored university is also responsible for “providing curriculum” and the “textbook selection,” according to the report. Similar to how the Confucius Institute operated, the visiting scholar appointed by Beijing Language and Culture University is “responsible for overseeing and coordinating all BLCU provided teachers and staff.”

Fox News Digital has reached out to Georgia State University, Western Michigan University, and the FBI.

In total, at least 28 universities replaced their Confucius Institute programs with something similar, according to the NAS report. 

Ian Oxnevad, a program research associate at the National Association of Scholars and an author of the report, told Fox News Digital that American universities are implementing Confucius Institute 2.0.

“The brand is tarnished, but that doesn’t mean that the vehicle has disappeared. You know, you can kind of think of it as a tarnished label, but the product is still viable for China. So, they’ll slap a new label on it and sell it as something different, even though it’s really the same thing,” Oxnevad said.

CHINESE PROPAGANDA PROGRAM IN US SCHOOLS QUIETLY CHANGES HEADQUARTERS NAME TO AVOID SCRUTINY

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a news conference at FBI headquarters on June 14, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a news conference at FBI headquarters on June 14, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark WIlson/Getty Images)

He also said the threat posed by Confucius Institutes and their replacements is that it serves as a vehicle for China to “shape perceptions of China among American students,” and more.

“It’s a propaganda outlet. At the same time, it also offers basically a location that China could conduct basically economic espionage out in the open, in the sense of stealing secrets that are developed in academia and then sending those back to China,” Oxnevad said. “It allows for the spying on dissidents. If you have critics of China, whether they’re from China or not, in a specific institution, having faculty there who are picked by the Chinese government obviously allows them a way to monitor them.”

The “rebranding” of Confucius Institutes comes amid warnings by Wray as well as Ken McCallum, director-general of the United Kingdom’s MI5 intelligence service. The two made statements during a joint appearance in London on July 6 with a warning for American companies: The Chinese government wants to steal your technology.

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“The Chinese government is set on stealing your technology — whatever it is that makes your industry tick — and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market,” Wray said. “And they’re set on using every tool at their disposal to do it.”

Wray also said that the Chinese Communist Party is set on targeting companies in small towns and big cities alike.

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