Rachelle Peterson: More Needs to Be Done to Cut Ties With Confucius Institutes

Simone Gao: What will happen to the Confucius Institutes on American campuses? I had a discussion with Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars. She wrote: “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.”

Simone Gao: Do you think the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 does enough to counter the Chinese Communist regime’s influence on American campuses?

Rachelle Peterson: The National Defense Authorization Act is an important step in the right direction in incentivizing colleges and universities to disentangle their Confucius Institutes from the rest of the college campus. But, unfortunately, it is not sufficient in itself. The NDAA forbids the Department of Defense from funding Chinese language programs that are entwined with Confucius Institutes on campus. But as long as the university completely separates its Pentagon-funded program from its Confucius Institute, then the university can continue to operate both. So more needs to be done to encourage colleges and universities to cut their ties with their Confucius Institutes.

Simone Gao: What else needs to be done then?

Rachelle Peterson: The federal government should condition more federal funding on colleges and universities closing their Confucius Institutes. It should be a condition to receive federal funding to close that Confucius Institute down. The Higher Education Act is currently up for reauthorization, and the National Association of Scholars has encouraged Congress to include language to that effect. We’ve also said that there needs to be more transparency. Right now colleges and universities are signing secret contracts with the Chinese government for the purpose of setting up their Confucius Institutes. There should be no secret contracts between American colleges and the Chinese government. Those contracts need to be made public, and the American people need to know the amount of money that the Chinese government has invested into these Confucius Institutes. All of this needs to be made publicly available for the sake of transparency and for protecting the integrity of American higher education.

Simone Gao: Talking about the integrity of American higher education, how do you think Confucius Institutes impact American scholars? Say, if these scholars are not staff members of the Confucius Institutes but are on the same campus with the CI, will they be able to publish on topics critical of the CCP?

Rachelle Peterson: I did case studies at 12 colleges with Confucius Institutes, and I talked to the scholars on those campuses. And what I found is that many, many professors felt that the presence of a Confucius Institute increased the pressure on them to avoid talking about sensitive topics. They felt that pressure from China, but they also felt that pressure from their own university administrations who didn’t want to jeopardize the funding stream that Confucius Institutes had generated. The universities themselves had turned into enforcers of China’s speech codes and had effectively passed those on to the professors. So it was limiting their academic freedom and their freedom to teach their students openly on issues related to China.

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