China on campus: Confucius Institutes collapse nationwide


Chinese President Xi Jinping adjusts his jacket as he arrives for a plenary session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping adjusts his jacket as he arrives for a plenary session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

China on campus: Confucius Institutes collapse nationwide

May 04, 07:00 AM May 04, 07:00 AM

Confucius Institutes are billed by the Chinese Communist Party as benevolent language and culture programs and once numbered more than 100 on U.S. campuses across the country. But intelligence officials, members of Congress, and the Trump administration accused them of being an arm of the Chinese Communist Party, used for propaganda and malign foreign influence purposes. In part one of this series, China on Campus, the Washington Examiner looks at how the once-ubiquitous institutions have waned over the past couple of years, shrinking in size and disappearing from dozens of colleges — including an Ivy League school once seen as its flagship program.

The Chinese Communist Party-linked Confucius Institutes are collapsing in the United States, falling from over 100 to just over a couple dozen in a few years thanks to pressure from the Trump administration and growing concern within the U.S. government about the challenge posed by Chinese influence at U.S. colleges and universities.

The U.S. government considers Confucius Institutes to be part of the Chinese government’s numerous and varied foreign influence operations, and the Trump administration increased pressure against the groups, including labeling their center in the nation’s capital to be a “foreign mission” of Beijing. While the number of Confucius Institutes in the U.S. numbered over 100 just a few years ago, they have now dwindled to what the State Department says is just 27 university sponsors currently operating exchange visitor programs affiliated with the Chinese organization, though that might not fully capture a number of other Confucius Institute partnerships the group has in the U.S.

Perhaps the starkest example of the downfall of Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses is the previously unreported revelation that Columbia University, the only Ivy League school which had such an institute, recently, and quietly, closed the institute after nearly a decade of operation. The website for Columbia’s Confucius Institute was pulled sometime after late January, and Caroline Adelman, the media relations director at Columbia, told the Washington Examiner: “We no longer host a Confucius Institute.”

She did not provide answers to the Washington Examiner’s initial questions about concerns related to Chinese influence operations, nor did she immediately respond to follow-up questions.

Columbia’s website still lists its Confucius Institute as an affiliate of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, describing the institute as “a research partnership that aims to advance our understanding of Chinese culture, transnational China, modern China, and the teaching of Chinese as a second language.” But the link to the Confucius Institute’s own Columbia page is now dead.

A Columbia professor named Wei Dedong was listed as the program coordinator for Columbia’s Confucius Institute on its now-defunct website as recently as January 2018. What appears to be Wei’s LinkedIn page still lists him as the “Chinese Director of Confucius Institute – Columbia University.” China’s Renmin University, located in Beijing, said in December 2019 that Wei was “appointed as” a “special expert on religious affairs of the Central United Front Work Department.”

Numerous security experts and U.S. government officials have warned that the United Front Work Department is part of the Chinese government’s foreign influence efforts, with the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s August 2018 report contending that “China uses what it calls ‘United Front’ work to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of its ruling Chinese Communist Party” and that United Front-related organizations” are playing an increasingly important role in China’s broader foreign policy” under Xi Jinping — who has called United Front work a “magic weapon” for bringing about “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The report said that “a number of official and quasi-official entities conduct overseas activities guided or funded by the United Front” — including Confucius Institutes.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revoked visas for agents of the United Front Work Department in December, saying it “funds and supports overseas organizations to spread propaganda and coerces and bullies those who would oppose Beijing’s policies.”

Columbia listed Wei as an associate professor at the School of Philosophy and Director of the International Center for Buddhist Studies at Renmin University, noting he was also “a Visiting Scholar of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the Confucius Institute” at Columbia. The school touted a November 2017 talk by him on “The New Revisions to China’s Regulations on Religious Affairs.” Renmin University described Wei as “the Chinese dean of the Confucius Institute at Columbia University” in 2019 when promoting a February 2019 talk he had given at the “2019 China-U.S.-Canada Buddhism Symposium” at Fa Wang Temple in New York City.

A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner that its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs “monitors the U.S. organizations designated by the Department to sponsor exchange visitors,” and “in the course of administering the exchange visitor program regulations, the Department has identified approximately 27 university sponsors that currently operate exchange visitor programs in affiliation with Confucius Institutes,” which it said was “down from 44 at the start of 2021.” The State Department is “aware that many U.S. universities are choosing to end their affiliation with Confucius Institutes as more information becomes available about the Institutes’ day-to-day activities, including some whose activities represent possible regulatory violations of the University’s exchange visitor program.”

The spokesperson was not able to provide the exact list of schools that still have operating Confucius Institutes, referring the Washington Examiner to the Confucius Institute U.S. Center “and others that track them,” like the National Association of Scholars.

Erik Eging, the director of external communications at the CIUS Center, told the Washington Examiner that “as we are not a headquarters we do not keep running tabs on the number of independent CI’s operating across the country.”

The NAS, a conservative-leaning public advocacy group, says that, as of April 27, it counted 50 currently active Confucius Institutes in the U.S., with 44 of them at colleges and universities, five at K-12 public school districts, and one at a private educational group called the China Institute. The NAS released a report in 2017 in which it “counted 103 Confucius Institutes in the United States” at the time. The group says now that, by its count, 77 institutes have closed or are in the process of closing — a number which the Washington Examiner can say is even higher.

The NAS reported that the institute at Stony Brook University is slated to close in May, Central Connecticut State University and Colorado State University in June, Portland State University on July 27, the University of Southern Maine on June 10, the College of William and Mary on June 30, the University of New Hampshire on July 30, Tufts University in September, Emory University in November, and Bryant University and Alabama A&M University at yet-unclear dates. The group also said that St. Cloud State University’s institute is “paused” while the university carries out a review.

After reaching out to all 50 schools on the NAS’s active list, the Washington Examiner found that, beyond Columbia, five more schools are also scheduled to close soon, including at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville on May 21, West Virginia University in June, Binghamton University on July 9, Cleveland State University in September, and Michigan State University at the end of 2021. The College of Optometry at the State University of New York is also reviewing the status of its institute.

Troy University is notable as the only school with a remaining institute that, at the time of publication, said definitively that its institute will remain open as it defended the partnership, though most other schools have not responded to requests for comment.

The Education Department’s online tracker says Columbia has received more than $689 million in foreign gifts and contracts over the years, including nearly $62 million that is of Chinese origin, including over $17.6 million from Chinese sources in 2020 alone.

A 2013 article by Chinese state-run China Daily celebrated the opening of Columbia’s Confucius Institute as part of a partnership with Renmin University, writing that, in 2010, Hanban had “pledged Columbia $1 million to be distributed to the institute over five years to fund its research projects and Chinese culture events.” During the ceremony marking the announcement, the outlet reported that Xu Lin, the director-general of the Hanban, reportedly said, “People ask me, why Columbia? Because Columbia has a very strong Chinese department and a strong program for teaching Chinese.” The outlet said that Xu presented the Columbia President Lee Bollinger with gifts, including “a book, a tie, artwork on a scroll, and a crystal-plate emblem” after the Confucius Institute plaque was unveiled, and Bollinger joked, “OK, no more gifts.”

In August, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington, D.C., as a “foreign mission” of the Chinese Communist Party, and Pompeo and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos joined forces in October to warn that K-12 classrooms and universities nationwide are being targeted by Chinese influence operations.

Eging, the CIUS Center spokesman, told the Washington Examiner, “As for the designation, we are currently contesting it as it has no legal basis. Unfortunately, the Department of State got their facts wrong. We have continued to work with them in a good faith effort to provide transparency with regards to our organization, our mission, and our belief in people to people exchanges between both the U.S. and China. As a predominantly American staff, we have no interest in spreading ‘soft power’ on behalf of a foreign country and are far more concerned with helping Americans master a notoriously difficult language.”

The Biden State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner that the CIUS Center “promotes the activities of Confucius Institutes in the United States” and that “that determination remains in place today.” The spokesperson emphasized that the State Department “has ongoing concerns about the overseas influence and global propaganda activities of the PRC government, including through Confucius Institutes, that might affect academic freedom in the United States” and that “many of these malign activities lack transparency and attempt to hide or downplay their affiliation with the PRC government and the CCP.”

Confucius Institute List (with some data sourced from the National Association of Scholars)

Troy University

Founded: October 2007

Chinese Partner: Hebei Normal University of Science and Technology

Status: Open

Alabama A&M University

Founded: 2014

Chinese Partner: Nanjing Forestry University

Status: Scheduled to close at a yet-unknown date — The institute’s website deactivated sometime after February 2021

University of Central Arkansas

Founded: 2008

Chinese Partner: East China Normal University

Status: Open

San Diego Global Knowledge University (had been at San Diego State University)

Founded: 2019

Chinese Partner: Xiamen University

Status: Open

Stanford University

Founded: 2013

Chinese Partner: Peking University

Status: Open

University of California – Santa Barbara

Founded: 2014

Chinese Partner: Shandong University

Status: Unclear — website was deactivated sometime after June 2020

Colorado State University

Founded: 2012

Chinese Partner: Hunan University

Status: Scheduled to close on June 30, 2021

Central Connecticut State University

Founded: 2013

Chinese Partner: Shandong Normal University

Status: Closing on June 30, 2021

George Washington University

Founded: 2013

Chinese Partner: Nanjing University

Status: Open

Emory University

Founded: 2008

Chinese Partner: Nanjing University

Status: Closing in November 2021

Wesleyan College

Founded: 2013

Chinese Partner: Guangzhou University

Status: Open

Northwest Nazarene University

Founded: 2015

Chinese Partner: Northwest University

Status: Unclear — website was pulled sometime after September 2020

Valpraiso University

Founded: 2007

Chinese Partner: Zhejiang University of Technology

Status: Open

Xavier University of Louisiana

Founded: 2012

Chinese Partner: Hebei University

Status: Open

Tufts University

Founded: 2014

Chinese Partner: Beijing Normal University

Status: Closing in September 2021

University of Southern Maine

Founded: 2014

Chinese Partner: Dongbei University of Finance and Economics

Status: Closing on June 10, 2021

Michigan State University

Founded: 2006

Chinese Partner: The Open University of China

Status: Closing by end of 2021

St. Cloud State University

Founded: 2013

Chinese Partner: The Education Department of Jilin Province

Status: Confucius Institute is “paused” while a review is conducted — website was removed sometime after August

Webster University

Founded: 2007

Chinese Partner: Beijing Language and Culture University

Status: Open

University of New Hampshire

Founded: 2010

Chinese Partner: Chengdu University

Status: Closing on June 30, 2021

New Jersey City University

Founded: 2015

Chinese Partner: Jilin Huaqiao University of Foreign Languages

Status: Open

Medgar Evers College

Founded: 2019

Chinese Partner: Hunan University of Technology and Business

Status: Open

Alfred University

Founded: 2009

Chinese Partner: China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, China

Status: Open

Stony Brook University

Founded: 20210

Chinese Partner: Zhongnan University of Economics and Law

Status: Closing on May 5, 2021

State University of New York – Albany

Founded: 2013

Chinese Partner: Southwestern University of Finance and Economics

Status: Open

College of Optometry – State University of New York

Founded: 2010

Chinese Partner: Wenzhou Medical University

Status: Undergoing a university review

State University of New York Global Center

Founded: 2010

Chinese Partner: Nanjing University Of Finance & Economics

Status: Open

State University of New York at Buffalo

Founded: 2010

Chinese Partner: Capital Normal University

Status: Open

Binghamton University

Founded: 2009

Chinese Partner: National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts

Status: Closing on July 9, 2021

Baruch University

Founded: 2017

Chinese Partner: Shanghai International Studies University

Status: Open

University of Akron

Founded: 2008

Chinese Partner: Henan University

Status: Open

Cleveland State University

Founded: 2008

Chinese Partner: Capital University of Economics and Business

Status: Closing in September 2021

University of Toledo

Founded: 2009

Chinese Partner: Yanshan University

Status: Open

Portland State University

Founded: 2007

Chinese Partner: Soochow University

Status: Closing on July 27, 2021

Temple University

Founded: 2014

Chinese Partner: Zhejiang Normal University

Status: Open

Bryant University

Founded: 2007

Chinese Partner: China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, China

Status: University will not reapply for funding but unclear on whether it will close

Presbyterian College

Founded: 2009

Chinese Partner: Guizhou University

Status: Open

University of Utah

Founded: 2010

Chinese Partner: Sichuan University

Status: Open

Southern Utah University

Founded: 2015

Chinese Partner: Hunan Normal University

Status: Open

College of William & Mary

Founded: 2012

Chinese Partner: Beijing Normal University

Status: Will close on June 30, 2021

Pacific Lutheran University

Founded: 2010

Chinese Partner: Sichuan University and Chongqing Education Commission

Status: Open

University of Wisconsin – Platteville

Founded: 2007

Chinese Partner: South-Central University For Nationalities

Status: Closing on May 21, 2021

West Virginia University

Founded: 2014

Chinese Partner: Tianjin University Of Finance & Economics

Status: Closing in June 2021

Chicago Public Schools

Founded: 2005

Chinese Partner: East China Normal University

Status: Open

China Institute

Founded: 2005

Chinese Partner: East China Normal University

Status: Open

East Central Ohio Educational Service Center

Founded: Unclear

Chinese Partner: Unclear — part of the Great Lakes Chinese Consortium

Status: Open

Houston Independent School District

Founded: Unclear

Chinese Partner: Unclear

Status: Unclear — website pulled after January 2021

Davis School District

Founded: Unclear

Chinese Partner: Unclear

Status: Open

Simpson County Schools

Founded: 2019

Chinese Partner: Unclear

Status: Open

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