House Democrats are blocking a bill that will curtail the influence of the Chinese-government-funded Confucius Institute, stymying bipartisan legislation that unanimously passed in the Senate.
Despite bipartisan support in the upper chamber, House Democrats—including a cosponsor for the bill—voted against placing the CONFUCIUS Act on the agenda in late July, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has yet to announce plans to place the bill on the floor. If passed, the legislation would require all federally funded universities with Confucius Institutes to assume "full managerial control" of the institutes, a move that would limit the Chinese government's influence over the program.
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Frustrated by the lack of action, congressional Republicans are blaming Pelosi for blocking debate for the bill, criticizing the House speaker for putting politics over national security.
"I regret that Speaker Pelosi has still not scheduled the CONFUCIUS Act for a vote," said Rules Committee Ranking Member Tom Cole, who introduced the July vote. "This isn’t about politics. It’s about holding China accountable, and Speaker Pelosi clearly hasn’t made that a priority."
This is not the first time Democrats have opposed bipartisan legislation that sought to hold China accountable. In March, House Democrats railed against a bill that demanded Beijing disavow its conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus originated in a U.S. military lab, labeling the bill racist against Asian Americans. House Democrats also dropped out of the then-bipartisan China task force in an unexplained, last minute decision in February.
Pelosi's office did not respond to a request for comment.
At its peak in 2017, Confucius Institute had branches in more than 100 universities across the country, allowing Beijing to teach Mandarin to thousands of U.S. college students. The government-vetted teachers are not allowed to discuss topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, such as human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet.
A bipartisan group of legislators have long worried that the program gives the Chinese government undue influence over campuses, prompting legislative action. The CONFUCIUS Act—which stands for Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes in the United States—required universities to uphold academic freedom and prevent the exercise of foreign law on American campuses—a key provision, since Beijing often required Confucius Institute teachers to abide by Chinese laws. The bill, introduced by Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.), unanimously passed the Senate in June.
The House companion bill initially received bipartisan support, recruiting Florida Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala as one of its sponsors. "The CONFUCIUS Act will support important cultural exchange with China while strongly protecting the values of American public higher education," the Democrat said in a July statement.
House Democrats, however, refused to put the bipartisan legislation on the agenda. On July 29, Republicans introduced a motion to approve consideration for the CONFUCIUS Act, but Democrats including Shalala voted against the motion. The bill is currently stuck in committee. Rachelle Peterson, a Confucius Institute expert and senior research fellow at the National Association of Scholars, said it is "truly astonishing" that Democrats will not advance the widely supported bill, which asks for "basic assurances of good faith from Confucius Institutes."
Republican supporters of the bill accuse Pelosi of ignoring China's growing influence in academia.
"If Speaker Pelosi is blocking the CONFUCIUS Act in the House after every single Senate Democrat supported its passage, it's worth asking why," Kennedy told the Washington Free Beacon. "Do House Democrats and the speaker want to give Xi Jinping more influence over what gets taught on American campuses? Does academic freedom annoy just their caucus in general?"
While House Democrats hesitate, the Trump administration has taken action to rein in the Confucius Institute. The White House declared the program's D.C. headquarters a "foreign mission" in August, which designates Confucius Institute a direct appendage of the Chinese government. The Department of Education has also uncovered millions of dollars worth of previously undisclosed donations from the Chinese government for Confucius Institutes. The concerted push has convinced a record number of universities to drop their ties with the controversial program.
Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) said the pandemic has forced a nationwide reckoning over the state of U.S.-China relations, and Democrats must keep up with the new consensus. The vast majority of Americans—including 68 percent of Democrats—have an unfavorable opinion of China, according to a July poll.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has proved the urgency with which we need to reevaluate our relationship with China," the senator, who cosponsored the CONFUCIUS Act, said. "Steps must be taken to protect the academic integrity of our educational institutions."