Undergraduate student Moe Lewis, left, shows her watercolor painting of peony leaves at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on May 2, 2018. U.S. lawmakers are pushing for…
Moe Lewis shows her watercolor of peony leaves at a painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., May 2, 2018. U.S. lawmakers are seeking to restrict or close Confucius Institutes at U.S. campuses.

A U.S. senator from Missouri has written the state university system and a private liberal arts university to express his concerns about Chinese espionage and Confucius Institutes on campus.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley directed his concerns to the University of Missouri and Webster University, which host Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institutes and centers around the world offer language and cultural programs that, in the past few years, have been accused of spreading Chinese propaganda. Several colleges and universities worldwide have ended their relationships with the institutes and shuttered their on-campus facilities as tensions over Chinese spying in the U.S. have grown.

Hawley was motivated by a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week with FBI Director Chris Wray.

'Source of concern'

Chinese Confucius Institutes at American universities are a "source of concern," Hawley said, because they allow the Chinese government to disseminate communist propaganda, encourage censorship and restrict academic freedom.

Hawley said a number of U.S. colleges and universities have closed their Confucius Institutes in the past year, including Texas A&M University, the University of Iowa, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and North Carolina State University.

"Both the University of Missouri and Webster University should follow their examples," Hawley tweeted.

University of Missouri spokesman Christian Basi said the school appreciated Hawley's letter and shared many of his concerns related to academic espionage.

"This is something that has been on the radar of our top leadership for the last one to two years," Basi said. "We also have periodically met with the FBI, both at national conferences when they provided information, as well as meeting with them here on campus."

Webster University, in suburban St. Louis, said it felt confident its oversight of the campus Confucius Institute was sound.

"We take academic freedom very seriously and will not sacrifice it for the sake of any relationship," Webster President Elizabeth Stroble wrote. "Our arrangement with Hanban expressly reserves for Webster University the right to determine the curricula and the manner of instruction for all programs that we offer. Nothing in our agreements concerning the Confucius Institutes restricts us from addressing any academic subject."

The Hanban is a Chinese state agency chaired by a member of the Politburo and the vice premier of the People's Republic of China.

Of the more than 1 million international students in the U.S., more than 300,000 are Chinese, according to the Institute of International Education. 

Organization cites demand

"As China's economy and exchanges with the world have seen rapid growth, there has also been a sharp increase in the world's demands for Chinese learning," according to the Confucius Institute website.

Chinese influence has been a top concern of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The FBI’s Wray, who testified before lawmakers including Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said the agency has "a thousand open investigations … involving attempted theft of intellectual property," and almost all the cases involved the Chinese. He called it "deep, diverse, wide and vexing."

A statement from the American Association of University Professors published in 2014 said, "Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom."