My colleague at The Heritage Foundation, historian and co-founder of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Lee Edwards, remarked in a column last year that in the United States, opposition to Confucius Institutes has managed to unite left and right. That is no small feat. It is a spirt of grace Americans must nurture, not just as it applies to fighting Chinese influence on American college campuses, but in the broader intergenerational struggle with China that is now underway.
We can’t win without it.
Like Dr. Edwards, I’m inspired by the work of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization of academics committed, in its words, to intellectual freedom, reasoned scholarship and civil debate. NAS just put out a new report entitled, “After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education.” It documents the travails of the institutes over the last five years. Bad publicity, pressure from Congress, and changes in law—in particularly a measure sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) barring universities with Confucius Institutes from receiving Defense Department funding—have led to closure of over 100.
The NAS report is not the product of your average Google search. It is serious research. The authors—Rachelle Peterson, Flora Yan and Ian Oxnevad—built an extensive database through the use of more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests. The documents they mined include the original contracts for the institutes, letters between the universities and Chinese authorities, correspondence between the universities and the US government and internal university communications.
Sorting through the NAS database not only provided the authors insight into the original intent and design of the programs. More importantly, it revealed the extent of the continuing problem. They found that Confucius Institutes have not really gone away. They have been replaced with new centers with new names, funded and run by the same people. Or they have been transferred to new homes.
This is where grace enters the equation.
It is understandable that universities want Chinese language programs. They should. If we’re going to beat the Chinese, we need more people who speak the language and understand the cultural context. But if that is the need, let’s get at it with our own resources. If it requires educational reform in state capitals, then let’s work together to get that done.
It is also fair to note that many of these programs were conceived at a very different time in U.S.-China relations. The program most extensively covered by the NAS report is that of the University of Washington. It began with a discussion in 2006 over dinner at Bill and Melinda Gates house between General Secretary of the CCP Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Governor of Washington Christine Gregoire. Bear in mind that just two years later, President George Bush attended the Summer Olympics in Beijing and took the opportunity to dine with his father and the same Hu Jintao at the CCP party compound in Beijing. This was the same Summer Olympics that famously marked China’s arrival as a great power.
It is not naivete, venality, or vanity that is the matter here. It is judgment. University administrators are trying to build meaningful curricula. In some areas touching on China, like language programs, they think they can do that most efficiently and effectively, and with little impact on their universities’ financing, by teaming up with the Chinese government. The impact on the school’s broader academic environment they think they can manage.
This is where they are wrong. The Chinese are not funding these programs to simply improve understanding of Chinese culture or to teach Chinese language. The Confucius Institutes and their successor programs exist to serve the interests of the CCP. It is a mistake to imagine you are going to take their money and turn it against the party’s aims.
Now, there are some in academia who don’t believe beating China should be the goal of U.S. foreign policy. And so, they accommodate Chinese interest because the politics of it is either of no concern or because they have a way of seeing international relations that downplays national interests and ideology. But they are wrong, too. The U.S. and China are in a state-on-state contest that will determine the course of the world for decades. It cannot be ignored.
I welcome these debates. And I hope to convince fellow Americans of their errors. Short of that, I want to see passed over their objection new restrictions on Chinese influence operations, including on university campuses. But I accept as a given that all of us come to our opinions honestly and thoughtfully. I must, because when the arguments are over, we have to come together again as Americans. You can win a vote with 50% plus one. You cannot win a war that way.
This piece originally appeared in the Taipei Times