Columbia University failed to disclose at least $1 million in Chinese government funding that went toward hosting a Confucius Institute, which the State Department has described as a part of Beijing's propaganda effort targeting U.S. students.
The New York-based university is the only Ivy League institution to host a Confucius Institute, a controversial Chinese government-funded program that at its height operated in more than 100 U.S. colleges. Hanban, the Beijing-controlled entity that manages the Confucius Institute, pledged at least $1 million in donations to Columbia University, according to a Chinese state media report. Department of Education records show that Columbia never disclosed any such donations to the federal government.
At least part of the Chinese government money went toward bringing on Prof. Wei Dedong, an adviser to the Chinese regime's propaganda department, to serve as the director of Columbia's Confucius Institute starting in 2016. Wei, who is an associate professor at Renmin University in Beijing, gave several lectures and organized events at Columbia, including a seminar on "China's regulation of religious affairs" in Tibet. He also oversaw the Confucius Institute's Mandarin instruction and grant programs for Columbia students.
The outsized role of a Chinese government adviser in an Ivy League school is in line with widespread concerns about the Confucius Institute, which critics say is a propaganda apparatus that hopes to influence how young Americans think about China. The controversial program has prompted bipartisan concern in Congress. Government scrutiny has convinced dozens of schools to drop Confucius Institute partnerships, making Columbia University one of the last remaining high-profile universities with a Confucius Institute program.
The Columbia venture appears to have been a priority for the Chinese government, which sent Hanban's director-general and the president of Renmin University to attend the 2013 official opening ceremony for the institute. The two Chinese representatives lavished Columbia president Lee Bollinger with numerous gifts.
"Okay, no more gifts," Bollinger jokingly said after the sixth one.
The gifts kept coming. The Chinese government pledged to pay $1 million to subsidize the Confucius Institute at Columbia between 2010 and 2015. But the university has never disclosed that $1 million donation or any other Confucius Institute-related funding in public disclosures. After the Department of Education cracked down on incomplete foreign-donation disclosures across the country, Columbia disclosed $350,000 in donations allocated for "centers/institute" in spring 2020. The university did not respond to a request for comment on whether the money was for the Confucius Institute.
It is unclear whether Columbia broke the law by failing to disclose the donations—universities are only required to disclose donations that exceed $250,000 in one year. Rachelle Peterson, the director of policy at the National Association of Scholars, an education watchdog, said that many colleges take advantage of the lax disclosure requirements to avoid reporting their foreign donations.
"Unfortunately Columbia is really par for the course," Peterson told the Washington Free Beacon. "For many years, colleges and universities have been either completely negligent or willfully out of compliance of the law. They have fought transparency at every step of the way."
The Chinese government donations went toward bringing on Wei, the Renmin University professor, to head the Confucius Institute. According to Renmin's website, Wei also serves as a special adviser to the religious-affairs division of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the Chinese government's premier influence and propaganda-pedaling operation. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan congressional body, concluded that the UFWD "conduct[s] influence operations targeting foreign actors and states" to sway them toward China.
It is unclear whether Wei still serves at Columbia University. His LinkedIn profile still lists him as director of Columbia's Confucius Institute, and a 2019 Renmin University press release identified him in that position as well. Columbia's Confucius Institute page, however, no longer lists him as director.
The Confucius Institute did not return a request for comment.