As Biden Admin Caves on Confucius Institute, Tennessee Moves to Pick Up Slack

GOP Gov. Lee: 'It's increasingly a state issue when the federal government is not keeping a strong defense'

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
March 25, 2021

As the federal response to Chinese influence at American universities falters, Tennessee is determined to pick up the slack by becoming the first state to ban the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute from public universities.

After President Joe Biden scrapped a Trump-era proposal that would have required universities to disclose their foreign monetary ties, Governor Bill Lee realized that he needed to act quickly to protect the state's universities from Chinese influence. The Tennessee Republican introduced a bill in the state legislature that would require the public universities to sever ties with the Confucius Institute.

"The Biden administration has rolled back the transparency that was put in place by the Trump administration, so we want to take care of that at the state level," Lee told the Washington Free Beacon in a Tuesday morning interview.

The Tennessee bill is one of several state-level initiatives that seek to curtail foreign influence on American campuses. The Texas and Utah legislatures are debating bills that seek to close down Confucius Institute programs in state universities, according to a list of ongoing legislation maintained by the National Association of Scholars. Four other states are also considering bills with a wider scope, including measures to ban public universities from partnering not just with the Confucius Institute but with any "communist regimes" or "the government of China."

The spate of anti-Confucius Institute legislation is a sign that states are taking matters into their own hands as the Biden administration drags its feet in responding to foreign influence. The Trump-era Department of Education opened 13 investigations into the foreign ties of American universities between February 2020 and January 2021. The Biden White House has so far opened zero investigations. Elite U.S. colleges, a key constituent for the Biden administration, have spent thousands of dollars lobbying the Democratic administration to halt federal probes into their multimillion-dollar partnership with China and other human rights abusers.

The White House is not solely to blame for the lackluster federal response. House Democrats have also blocked the passage of sweeping legislation against the Confucius Institute. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) refused to hold a vote on an anti-Confucius Institute bill that unanimously passed in the Senate in 2020. Lee said states must step up amid federal inaction.

"National security is a state issue as well," the governor said. "It's increasingly a state issue when the federal government is not keeping a strong defense."

Tennessee already leads the way in the nationwide effort to shut down the Confucius Institute. The state's public universities—which together received more than $2.5 million from Confucius Institute and its affiliates—are in the process of shutting down the Chinese government program. The bill's passage will ensure that the Confucius Institute will not be able to establish any foothold in Tennessee. 

Growing government and public scrutiny has greatly diminished the influence of the Confucius Institute, which today counts 51 branches in universities down from an all-time high of 103. But the Chinese government program continues to draw up new schemes to avoid scrutiny. On some campuses it has adopted new names, though the substance of the program remains identical, to avoid detection. Lee said he has made amendments to his bill to cover all iterations of the Confucius Institute program. But he warns that the re-branding effort is a sign that the Chinese government will continue to find new ways to influence American civil society.

"This is not an issue that's going to be quickly resolved or quickly fixed," he said. "This is an issue that we're going to have to watch for months or years."