Blackburn Leads Effort to Distance American Universities from Confucius Institutes

March 12, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) seeks to minimize Chinese efforts to exert inappropriate influence on American university campuses through Confucius Institutes, which repress free speech and discourage transparency. Congressional efforts have led to the closure of many Institutes, yet many remain. Senator Blackburn is leading a two-part effort to ensure that the existing Confucius Institutes in the United States abide by standards of transparency and academic freedom.


“The Chinese government has no right to influence American education the way Confucius Institutes have for the past sixteen years,” said Senator Blackburn. “Those studying Chinese culture and language at schools like University of Memphis and Middle Tennessee State University ought to be alarmed that the Chinese government has made itself at home in their institutions. Confucius Institutes as they currently operate are an affront to academic freedom, and we should not bow to repressive Chinese propaganda systems. It is time to put some serious distance between Confucius Institutes and American Universities.”


PART ONE: Senator Blackburn is introducing the Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act to require program participation agreements between Confucius Institutes and American institutions that house them to address the ways China exerts undue influence.

She is joined by Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).


This legislation will enable the creation of necessary distinctions, including:

  • Clearly delineating between the Confucius Institutes’ programs and their own Chinese language programs;
  • Locating an Institute apart from Chinese language, history, and cultural programs;
  • Removing the Chinese assistant director position from Institutes;
  • Subjecting the staff and professors to appropriate background checks;
  • Making the agreements publicly available online;
  • Removing the confidentiality section of agreements;
  • Including stronger language in the agreements to make it clearer that the U.S. school has executive decision-making authority.


“We know the Chinese Communist Party is using Confucius Institutes as a way to create influence on our college campuses. This is the right step in making it clear that Confucius Institutes are not independent centers of learning, but instruments of Beijing’s overseas propaganda machine,” said Senator Hawley.


“China funds Confucius Institutes on American college campuses to stifle criticism of atrocities like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and indoctrinate our kids with the party line,” said Senator Cotton. “Our bill would give American students, faculty, and administrators more power to resist the Confucius Institutes’ propaganda and pressure campaigns.”

“We know Communist China is stealing our technology and trying to compete with us on the global stage,” Senator Rick Scott said. “The Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act will curb the negative influence of Confucius Institutes to protect our universities and our national security.”


“The Confucius Institutes are directly funded and overseen by the Communist Party of China (CPC),  whose suppression of human rights and malign activities around the world warrant a strong response from the US,” said Senator Lankford. “The fact that they are invited onto numerous college campuses around the US is concerning and should be addressed. This bill takes steps to ensure China is not promoting propaganda or political censorship on campuses under the guise of the seemingly innocuous Confucius Institutes. The bill also ensures China cannot unduly influence and pressure decisions at our universities because of the presence of a Confucius Institute. The US wants a constructive relationship with China, but the lack of transparency around Confucius Institutes inhibits our ability to do that.”


“No foreign government should have the ability to pressure U.S. institutions of higher education to change their curriculum or suppress politically sensitive content. At many schools, Confucius Institutes have acted as extensions of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Senator Lee. “The U.S. federal government has a duty to conduct careful oversight of foreign programs to protect our students from undue influence or foreign propaganda. These measures ensure that the agreements that our colleges and universities enter into are transparent both to the government and to the American people.”

“For far too long, the Communist Chinese government has attempted to infiltrate American universities through the disguise of the government-run Confucius Institute,” Senator Rubio said. “I’ve repeatedly raised concerns and educated universities, including those throughout Florida, that have had these agreements in place. This bill adds needed pressure on Confucius Institutes, and pushes universities to take responsibility in a way that’s consistent with American and democratic values.”


Chinese officials have recently been documented pressuring faculty at U.S. universities that host Confucius Institutes to avoid making statements or holding events on politically sensitive topics. Chinese teachers at these institutes sign contracts with the Government of China pledging not to damage their national interests. Such limitations attempt to export China’s censorship of political debate and reduce academic freedom.


Recent legislation, most notably the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, has resulted in the closure of some Confucius Institutes. The Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act would complement these efforts by targeting those institutes that choose to remain by establishing certain standards that would either negate the malign aspects of their influence or motivate them to close.

PART TWO: Senator Blackburn led a group of Senate colleagues in urging Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to exercise necessary oversight.

She is joined by Senators James Lankford (R-Okla.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The letter is available below and here.


Dear Secretary DeVos:

We write to bring your attention to concerns regarding the presence of Confucius Institutes at colleges and universities that receive federal funds through the Department of Education (DOE).


In February 2019, the Comptroller General of the United States found there were 96 Confucius Institutes operating at institutions of higher education (IHEs) across 44 states and the District of Columbia.   This followed a 2017 report from the National Association of Scholars that noted these institutes stifle intellectual freedom.   Additionally, in February 2019, a bipartisan Senate investigation found the Chinese government provided more than $158 million to U.S. schools for Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of these institutes, and that Chinese directors and teachers at these institutes pledge to protect Chinese national interests.        


Congress is concerned with the presence of Confucius Institutes on college campuses.  The fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L.115-232) specifically prohibited the use of Department of Defense funds for Chinese language instruction provided by a Confucius Institute, or even a Chinese language program at IHEs that host such an institute.  


Underscoring these concerns is the lack of transparency concerning the manner in which these institutes operate, and ambiguity regarding the separation of taxpayer funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act (HEA) from the funds IHEs receive to operate or manage these institutes as part of a foreign language program.  Some Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools are part of an academic department or an administrative office, while others report directly to school leadership.  Accordingly, do these agreements conflict with Section 117 of the HEA, which requires colleges to report all gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceed $250,000?  What oversight role does the DOE play in protecting against undue foreign influence on college campuses via contracts and implementation agreements?  What measures are in place at the DOE to protect against IHEs inappropriately using the J-visa program related to Confucius Institutes?


Thank you for your attention to this matter.  We look forward to your response to our questions.