China's massive foreign influence campaign in the United States takes a long view, sowing seeds in American institutions meant to blossom over years or even decades. That's why the problem of Chinese financial infusions into U.S. higher education is so difficult to grasp and so crucial to combat.
At last, the community of U.S. officials, lawmakers and academics focused on resisting Chinese efforts to subvert free societies is beginning to respond to Beijing's presence on America's campuses. One part of that is compelling public and private universities to reconsider hosting Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government-sponsored outposts of culture and language training.
With more than 100 universities in the United States now in direct partnership with the Chinese government through Confucius Institutes, the U.S. intelligence community is warning about their potential as spying outposts. But the more important challenge is the threat the institutes pose to the ability of the next generation of American leaders to learn, think and speak about realities in China and the true nature of the Communist Party regime.
"Their goal is to exploit America's academic freedom to instill in the minds of future leaders a pro-China viewpoint," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. "It's smart. It's a long-term, patient approach."
This month, Rubio asked all Florida educational institutions that host Confucius Institutes to reconsider those arrangements in light of a growing body of evidence that China seeks to constrain criticism on American campuses, exert influence over curriculum related to China and monitor Chinese students in the United States.
One of the schools Rubio contacted, the University of West Florida, had already decided not to renew its contract with Hanban, the Chinese government entity that manages the institutes. Western Florida joins a growing list of universities that are rejecting the Faustian bargain that comes with accepting Chinese government funding and management for programs meant to expose students to China, including the University of Chicago, Penn State University and Ontario's McMaster University. West Florida President Martha Saunders told me the decision was primarily due to a lack of student interest, but the rising concerns also contributed.
FBI Director Christopher Wray articulated those concerns in testimony last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said the FBI is "watching warily" and even investigating some Confucius Institutes. He said "naivete" in the academic sector was exacerbating the problem and called out the Chinese government for planting spies in American schools.
"They're exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they're taking advantage of it," Wray said.
For Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., that's a long-awaited acknowledgment. The majority of the institutes' activity may be benign, and it's difficult to determine how much self-censorship participating institutions engage in, Smith said. He has commissioned a study of the institutes by the Government Accountability Office to collect data to support his call for their closure.
"They are nests of influence, reconnaissance," he said. "They keep tabs on Chinese students, and those who attend their classes are getting a Pollyannaish take on what China is about today."
To understand what Confucius Institutes are really about, it's necessary to understand their connections to the Communist Party and its history. Peter Mattis, a former U.S. intelligence analyst now with the Jamestown Foundation, said Confucius Institutes can be directly linked to the Communist Party's "united front" efforts, still described in Maoist terms: to mobilize the party's friends to strike at the party's enemies.
For example, Liu Yandong, the Communist Party official who launched the Confucius Institutes and served as chairwoman, was the head of the United Front Work Department when the program began.
"They are an instrument of the party's power, not a support for independent scholarship," Mattis said. "They can be used to groom academics and administrators to provide a voice for the party in university decision-making."
At a minimum, Confucius Institutes must be required to provide more transparency, yield full control over curriculum to their American hosts and pledge not to involve themselves in issues of academic freedom for American or Chinese students. If they don't do this voluntarily, Congress will likely act to compel them. Both Rubio and Smith are working on new legislation to do just that.
More broadly, if we as a country don't want Confucius Institutes to control discussion of China on campus, we must provide better funding for the study of China and Chinese languages. If we are really headed into a long-term strategic competition with China, there is no excuse for not investing in educating our young people about it - or for letting the Chinese government do it for us.