China-Backed Confucius Institute Rebrands to Avoid Scrutiny

CCP propaganda programs change name but not the content of their influence operations

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March 17, 2021

The China-backed Confucius Institute is rebranding to avoid public scrutiny into its work disseminating propaganda to thousands of American students. 

United States government oversight and faculty pushback have curtailed the influence of the Confucius Institute, which has dwindled from 103 college branches in 2017 to just 51 today. But the propaganda program is not going away without a fight. Experts say that after host institutions shutter Confucius Institutes, some of the programs continue to operate by adopting new names.

The rebranding has allowed the Beijing-backed influence program to continue to shape the education of students from kindergartners to college students. According to a new report by the American Security Institute, more than 100 "Confucius classrooms" that cater to the K-12 system are now rebranded as the Asia Society Chinese Language Partner Network. 

"Confucius Institutes are trying to repackage themselves—same old wine, brand new bottle," Will Coggin, managing director of the American Security Institute, told the Washington Free Beacon.

The persistence of the Confucius Institute in the U.S. education system speaks to how difficult it is to convince American schools to sever ties with Chinese entities. Hanban, the Chinese Ministry of Education-backed group that runs the Confucius Institute, has spent more than $100 million to support the institutes in U.S. universities. Many universities fear that ending ties with the Confucius Institute will cause funding shortfalls and program cuts.

But U.S. officials say the Chinese money is not worth the strings attached to it. A bipartisan Senate report found that the Confucius Institute curtails academic freedom because the Chinese government controls "nearly every aspect" of the program in the United States. The report said Beijing requires instructors to follow Chinese laws and bars them from discussing topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Communist Party, such as the Tibet issue. 

After Congress pursued legislation to rein in the Confucius Institute—including a bill that won unanimous support in the Senate—host institutions started to rebrand their China partnerships.

Asia Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit with ties to China, helped the regime establish more than 100 Confucius classrooms in elementary, middle, and high schools across the country. Until late 2020, the nonprofit touted its collaboration with the China-backed program on its website, according to the American Security Institute report.

"Asia Society's Confucius Classrooms are a national network of exemplary Chinese language programs," read an archived version of the Asia Society's website from August 2020.

Asia Society's website no longer mentions the propaganda program. The nonprofit has replaced every mention of the Confucius Institute with its new name, the Chinese Language Partner Network. The new program is functionally identical to its predecessor and teaches the same materials in the same schools, according to the website.

Asia Society did not respond to a request for comment.

Confucius Institute programs in American universities are also adopting new names to avoid scrutiny, according to Rachelle Peterson, an expert at the National Association of Scholars. She has found cases in which a university that claimed to shutter its Confucius Institute branch actually rebranded it as a new "China Center," though it taught the same materials provided by the Chinese government.

"Most [Confucius Institute] 'closures' result in the opening of a new China center, which retains at least some of the Confucius Institute staff," Peterson said. 

The Confucius Institute has long avoided government scrutiny by relying on its U.S. partners: Seventy percent of American universities with financial ties to Hanban kept them secret from the federal government, according to the Senate report. Coggin said the U.S. government must step up its transparency efforts in order to curtail Chinese influence in academia.

"Biden should focus on increasing transparency about Chinese operations in the U.S.," Coggin said. "Whether that's about universities or somewhere else, I think there's areas where we'd want to have more sunlight."