On June 21, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) issued a report warning that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-linked Confucius Institutes program at many American universities has rebranded itself after becoming the subject of official examination by the federal government, as well as significant media scrutiny and adverse commentary from various think tanks and research organizations.
Because of the nexus with immigration policy (specifically the foreign student and exchange visitor programs), we at the Center for Immigration Studies have been among those critical of the Confucius Institutes program (see, for instance, here, here, and, particularly, here), because it was a thinly veiled propaganda effort the CCP used to “buy” influence at major universities throughout the U.S.
The Confucius Institutes program was a great success until it — and, in no small measure, the universities that were being funneled large amounts money through the institutes in return for a virtual monopoly over how China and the CCP were depicted on campus — came under so much heat that many universities severed the link.
This is why it’s alarming to read the NAS report suggesting that the CCP has simply opted for the expedient path of pasting a new name onto the old shell and going about business as usual.
But even more alarming is that, according to the NAS, many of the same universities that fell into the institutes trap the first time are perfectly happy to stick their hands back out and collect dollars in return for allowing China to ensure that it is always depicted in a favorable light on campus:
[A]t least 64 colleges and universities have reopened a Confucius Institute-like program under a different name or maintained close relationships with the Chinese entities that cosponsored Confucius Institutes.
No need for messy discussions about Uyghur camps, harvesting organs from prisoners of the state, suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, or the like if campus leaders are willing to sell their universities' souls in exchange for hefty sums. This smacks of the most egregious kind of disingenuousness.
But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that Confucius Institutes or their rebranded descendants are only about soft power and influencing the views of America's youth, many of whom will ascend the rungs of political and business power as they mature. These are also excellent platforms from which the CCP can monitor Chinese dissidents on campus, as well as plant program “coordinators” to groom students, professors, and other staff for the purpose of espionage. This is not a stretch, keeping in mind that many of these same schools have lucrative contracts with various arms of the federal government for research projects of great interest to China.
Quashing, or at least controlling, such naked efforts requires a coordinated plan by federal departments and agencies, something that is, and has been, sadly lacking. One mechanism for exerting control over universities, nearly all of whom have received permission from the federal government to accept foreign students (a highly lucrative venture in the world of secondary education), is for the Department of Homeland Security to radically restructure the terms under which such approvals are granted and expand the bases by which such approvals may be rescinded.
This is long overdue. At present, the unit responsible for administration and oversight of these approvals, the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP) within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is singularly ineffectual if it has not, in fact, been entirely coopted by academia despite the unit's placement in an enforcement organization.
Indeed, perhaps it is time that DHS radically restructures SEVP itself, including by placing a supervisory special agent directly in charge of the program. SEVP has been a stepchild within ICE so long that it was allowed to stray from its central mission of enforcement and control. It's worth remembering that SEVP came about because of the many national-security-related issues that have arisen with regard to foreign students and exchange visitors over many decades.