Two of the largest U.S. college campus political organizations are calling for the closure of all Confucius Institutes in the United States, saying the Beijing-funded outposts are part of the Chinese Communist Party's attempt to control discourse on China at American universities.
The open letter states that China’s actions at U.S. colleges and universities “pose an existential threat to academic freedom as we know it.”
Signatories of the May 13 missive included leaders of the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America, as well as human rights groups representing “the continued struggles of Hong Kongers, Mongolians, Taiwanese, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and others” against China.
Rory O’Connor, president of the Athenai Institute and deputy director of human development for the College Democrats, said he was surprised how many partisan student organizations united in the call to close Confucius Institutes (CIs). He said that reflects growing concern among college students and others about the overseas influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“You’re seeing this massive generation-wide consensus and we tapped into it with what we're doing and we didn't even recognize it,” said O'Connor who is working out of a dorm room as the group works on getting office space. “We are able to tap into this national massive concern or this shared concern really on the part of college students across the country. Young people get this and they're doing something about it.”
The CIs, sponsored by Hanban, the Chinese government agency that promotes Chinese culture and language worldwide, have long been controversial in the US and elsewhere due to their deep ties to the CCP.
In 2018, Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, wrote: "There is mounting concern about the Chinese government's increasingly aggressive attempts to use Confucius Institutes ... to influence foreign academic institutions, and critical analysis of China's past history and present policies."
Critics say the institutes have also pressured universities over events such as a visit by the Dalai Lama, or conferences on Taiwan, and monitor and threaten Chinese students who are studying abroad. But over the past 18 months, the CI debate on campus, which had focused on academic freedom, has refocused on “Chinese-government sponsored activities and espionage-related threats” on US campuses, according to an article on closing CIs in the trade publication Inside Higher Ed.
Attempts to get comment from the Confucius Institute in the U.S. were unsuccessful.
FBI director Christopher Wray testified in July 2019 that the CIs “offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom.”
CI contends it is similar to cultural and language programs such as the British Council or Alliance Francaise around the world but those government sponsored entities do not rely on host institutions for matching funds for Chinese language and other programs.
Caleb Max, an Athenai Institute board member, said the key issue is the CCP funding of the CIs.
“This was never an anti-Chinese people thing, this is an anti-Communist Party thing,” said Max. “And we should encourage the Chinese language ... being taught, we should encourage Chinese game nights. We don't want the Communist Party being the venue for that.”
Erica Kelly, the Virginia State president of the College Democrats of American, signed the appeal. She said that at her school, George Mason University, the CI has prevented Chinese professors from carrying out some academic programs, and some campus groups from organizing discussions on issues Bejing considers sensitive such as Tibet and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Kelly said, “There have been many times on our campus when students from either the Tibetan community or the Uighur community have felt unsafe or unwelcome because of the presence of the Confucius Institute. Largely because members of Uighur community feel as they speak out, members of their family back home in China may be harmed. So this is very personal to me and the campus that I'm proud to be a part of. And that's why it was so important to me that I spoke up.”
Ian Waite, who is chairperson of the College Republican Federation of Virginia, said that before he signed the open letter, he made sure the wording in the letter differentiated Chinese students from the CCP and the letter was free of any xenophobic or racist sentiments.
He believes that students from China and Uighurs seeking asylum in the United States are the biggest victims of Confucius Institutes.
Waite said, “So to me, you know, there's a very clear distinction between a Chinese student and an affiliate of the CCP. And so it's very important that if we're going to go about condemning this, it needs to be very clear that the CCP and the Confucius institutes are the problem and not, you know, the broader impact of the Chinese students can have on the campus, which more often than not, is a very positive impact in furthering our research and development.”
The open letter condemns xenophobia and states, “The Chinese Communist Party’s actions pose an immense threat to academic freedom and to human dignity. It is imperative that we distinguish this totalitarian regime from the Chinese people, whom we must steadfastly defend from abhorrent acts of xenophobia, racism, and hatred. We must act to give voice to the long-oppressed, be they Chinese, Hong Konger, Mongolian, Taiwanese, Tibetan or Uyghur. We must condemn in the most unequivocal terms any and all anti-Asian sentiment wherever and whenever it arises.”
Several of the student leaders told VOA that many American students do not understand the impact of CIs and the CCP on their campuses. They said the CCP’s practices on Hong Kong, and Xinjiang and the COVID-19 outbreak, have also made the U.S. students less likely to have any involvement with the CCP.
John Metz, national council chair of the College Democrats of America, said, “I do think this reflects a growing consensus within the youth wings of both parties, and I think the events of the last few days in Hong Kong in particular, have really been moving the needle.” On Thursday, China's National People's Congress approved
imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, which many resident fear will mean a sweeping erosion of the city’s rule of law, rights and freedoms.
The authors of the open letter, as well as student leaders from the Democratic and Republican parties said it was only a first step, and that they would continue to push grassroots campaigns on campus, urge schools to take concrete action to implement the open letter's appeal, and mobilize more students to contact their respective members of Congress to push for policies at the legislative level.
As of May 15, 2020, there were 81 CIs in the US, according to the National Association of Scholars, and 480 CIs operating worldwide, according to the CI at the University of California Los Angeles.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report