April 22, 2024

The Middle Kingdom Meets Higher Education

The Middle Kingdom Meets Higher Education

The Middle Kingdom Meets Higher Education

By Craig Singleton
09 December 2022


Alfred University NY China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) – Open
Arizona State University AZ (Sichuan University) – Closed
Bryant University RI China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) – Open
Chicago Public School District IL (East China Normal University) – Open
China Institute of Manhattan, NY (East China Normal University) – Open
College of William and Mary, VA (Beijing Normal University) – Closed
Emory University, GA (Nanjing University) – Open
Pacific Lutheran University, WA (Sichuan University) – Open
Portland State University, OR (Soochow University) – Closed
Purdue University*, IN (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) – Closed
Rutgers University, NJ (Jilin University) – Closed
San Diego Global Knowledge University, CA (Xiamen University) – Open
San Diego State University, CA (Xiamen University) – Closed
San Francisco State University, CA (Beijing Normal University) – Closed
Stanford University, CA (Peking University) – Open
Texas A&M University, TX (Ocean University of China) – Closed
Texas Southern University, TX (Beijing Jiaotong University) – Closed
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN (Southeast University) – Closed
The University of Texas at Dallas, TX (Southeast University) – Closed
The University of Toledo, OH (Yanshan University) – Open
The University of Utah, UT (Sichuan University) – Open
Tufts University, MA (Beijing Normal University) – Closed
University of California, Santa Barbara, CA (Shandong University) – Open
University of Central Arkansas, AR (East China Normal University) – Closed
University of Delaware, DE (Xiamen University) – Closed
University of Oregon, OR (East China Normal University) – Closed
University of Washington, WA (Peking University) – Closed
Xavier University of Louisiana, LA (Hebei University) – Open

Confucius Institutes (CIs) are Chinese government-sponsored organizations offering Chinese-language, cultural, and historical programming at the primary, secondary, and university levels worldwide. CIs are also a key element in China’s “united front,” a network of groups and key individuals that seek to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).1 CIs further serve as platforms that advance facets of China’s military-civil fusion (MCF), a national strategy aimed at acquiring the world’s cutting-edge technologies — including through theft — to achieve Chinese military dominance.2 China’s CI-enabled initiatives include the establishment of academic and research partnerships between top-tier American institutions and Chinese universities supporting Beijing’s military-industrial complex.

Between 2018 and 2021, the number of CIs operating in the United States fell from 113 to 34. Only four of these 79 closures were attributed to national security concerns, despite ample evidence that China leverages relationships with U.S. universities to acquire the technology and talent Beijing needs to win its strategic competition with the United States.3 CI closures began in earnest only after Congress passed legislation that bars universities hosting CIs from receiving certain types of funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The universities that have resisted shuttering their CIs are ones that do not receive federal funding jeopardized by this new legislation.

Troublingly, a CI closure often does not result in the severance of ties between its American host and the CCP-selected Chinese sister university that supported the CI’s programming. Following at least 28 of the 79 documented closures, U.S. universities that shuttered their CIs chose to maintain, and in some cases expand, their relationships with their Chinese sister universities, many of which support China’s defense industry. This support includes directly enabling Beijing’s intelligence apparatus as well as underwriting China’s nuclear weapons sector and cyber-espionage platforms.

Documenting the evolving relationships between these U.S. and Chinese universities, both before and after a CI closure, remains challenging. U.S. universities are not required by federal law to disclose details about their partnerships with Chinese or other foreign universities. Several schools have voluntarily published their CI contracts and copies of their academic partnership agreements with Chinese universities. Requests under the Freedom of Information Act have led to the release of several more. These documents are essential to understanding how CIs operate, yet still provide only a partial view.

As of August 2021, there were 34 active CIs in the United States, spread across 20 states. Twenty-eight of these CIs were hosted by U.S. universities; five were co-located in K-12 school districts; and one was hosted by a private educational organization, the China Institute in Manhattan. Of the 28 universities currently hosting a CI, 10 maintain active sister-school relationships with Chinese universities conducting classified research in support of China’s defense establishment.4 Curiously, only one of these Chinese schools, Sichuan University, is on the U.S. Commerce Department Bureau of Industry and Security’s Entity List, which restricts the exportation of sensitive items to designated entities and individuals. Sichuan University earned its designation for supporting China’s nuclear weapons program.5 At present, U.S. universities are under no legal or regulatory obligation to sever ties with Chinese universities supporting China’s military, even when those Chinese universities appear on the Entity List.

This report analyzes CI closures between 2018 and 2021. First, it evaluates the rationales that U.S. universities provided when announcing the closures. It also demonstrates that dozens of U.S. universities have voluntarily elected to maintain or expand partnerships with their Chinese sister universities long after shuttering their CIs. Relatedly, the report examines how these Chinese universities provide direct support to China’s MCF program and defense industry. Lastly, the report examines the 34 remaining CIs across the United States and offers a series of policy recommendations aimed at uncovering, and even neutralizing, China’s ability to leverage CIs and their associated academic partnerships to access sensitive U.S. research and development (R&D).

American efforts should include increasing transparency surrounding CI-enabled agreements between U.S. and Chinese universities and better educating U.S. universities about the risks of partnering with entities affiliated with China’s defense buildup. Additionally, the U.S. government should foster alternative Chinese-language initiatives to outcompete CI language programming. The U.S. government should also establish legal and regulatory guardrails to neutralize China’s ability either to acquire foundational knowledge or to access more sensitive research being conducted on U.S. college campuses. These guardrails should include measures to address due-diligence and counterintelligence gaps in the U.S. government’s National Industrial Security Program (NISP), which ensures that cleared U.S. defense entities working on lucrative U.S. government contracts protect classified information. Such entities include U.S. universities that support NISP-related projects while simultaneously partnering with Chinese universities tied to China’s military.



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