Confucius Institutes in the Wake of the Confucius Act

By Daniel Stephens

THURSDAY- The United States Senate unanimously passed the Confucius Act (S. 939), placing restrictions on Confucius Institutes that operate on college campuses. Confucius Institutes hold cultural events, teach Chinese, and sponsor trips to China. The Confucius Act addresses China’s influence on the postsecondary educational institutions, citing the need for protection of academic freedom of the institutions. Proponents of the bill argue that the institutions serve as “propaganda arms” of the Chinese government, not allowing controversial international conversations about “Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kong, etc.” Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, the main sponsor of the bill, believes that too many American institutions are beginning to depend on the Communist Party of China for funding, thus allowing the Confucius Institutes to influence their campuses.

The universities that have contracts with Confucius Institutes will not receive federal funding under the act, unless their contract with the institute explicitly protects academic freedom, prohibits application of foreign law on any campus, and grants managerial authority of the Confucius Institute to the institution, including its material. Many schools, such as Emory University and the University of Kentucky, have decided to terminate their contracts with their Confucius Institutes, citing fears of losing federal funding. Many other high-profile universities are rumored to close their Confucius Institutes in the coming weeks.

Since the founding of the program in 2004, Confucius Institutes have long been controversial, with many universities across the world refusing to allow them on campus. With the passage of the Confucius Act, it is likely many public American universities will not be opening new Confucius Institutes soon.  However, universities with existing contracts should be cautioned to completely cut ties with their Confucius Institutes, as it may increase frustration among both American and Chinese students, who use the institutes to engage in cultural expression between the two countries. American universities with existing contracts should focus on rewriting their contracts, to assure academic integrity and maintain positive relations with their Chinese students and staff.

Although the Confucius Act protects much of the academic freedom of the universities, the long-term implications of the act are yet to be determined. The relationship between Washington and Beijing may continue to deteriorate as frustration amongst the American public with the one-party Chinese government are increasing. Anti-Asian sentiment is sweeping the United States and much of the western world, as China is continuously being blamed for its poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing of the bill, along with many of colleges choosing to close their Confucius Institutes, could not come at a worse time for US-China relations.

In the aftermath of a Trump Administration with a strong anti-China rhetoric, the current Biden Administration has insisted it would continue to be tough, but not reckless, with China. The current administration must realize not to completely cut ties with an influential East Asian economic partner. The American people do not want foreign interference on their college campuses, but with rocky relations between Beijing and Washington, the Biden Administration must continue to bridge the gap between domestic sovereignty and positive relations with an emerging power. An agreement between the US and China could be made to limit the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the Confucius Institutes, however it will ultimately be up to individual institutions in the United States whether they will be allowed on campus or not.

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