A top State Department nominee is a defender of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government program that disseminates pro-Beijing propaganda on American college campuses.
Victoria Nuland, President Biden's choice for undersecretary of state for political affairs, voiced support for the expansion of the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute at American universities in a 2012 press conference. Nuland, then an Obama administration spokeswoman, praised the campus institutes as a crucial part of "people-to-people exchange" between the two superpowers, dismissing concerns about Chinese ambition.
A reporter asked Nuland if the Obama administration was concerned about "the Confucius Institute's expansion in the U.S. as the strongest Chinese soft power?"
"No," Nuland responded. "This [Confucius Institute] is something that we support. It's part of the people-to-people understanding."
The Confucius Institute quickly expanded its influence during the Obama era, establishing itself at more than 100 American universities and colleges during its peak in 2017, despite warnings about the Chinese Communist Party's influence. Several government reports found the Chinese government exercised high degrees of control over campus institutes, barring their instructors from teaching taboo topics such as Tibet or Hong Kong. Frequently, instructors were contractually obligated to follow Chinese law even when teaching on American soil.
Nuland's sympathetic comments about the Confucius Institute could ruffle feathers in the Senate, which will decide whether to confirm the former diplomat to the third-highest position in the State Department. Republican senators have demanded answers from multiple Biden nominees for China-friendly comments or business deals in the authoritarian country.
"Any nominee who has spoken in favor of Confucius Institutes is extremely concerning," said a spokesman for Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.). "We cannot have individuals who are either naïve to—or even sympathize with—the threat that Beijing poses in top national security positions."
Nuland's comments are emblematic of the Obama administration's welcoming approach to the Beijing-backed institutes.
According to a report by the National Association of Scholars, an education watchdog, Obama's Department of Education sponsored a Confucius Institute-backed conference for Chinese teachers in the United States. Several Obama senior officials also served on the conference's advisory board.
Nuland should answer for her support for the Chinese government-backed institute, said Rachelle Peterson, the author of the watchdog's report.
"The Obama administration repeatedly underestimated the Chinese government's soft power campaign, even going so far as to endorse Confucius Institutes," she told the Washington Free Beacon. "Both Nuland and Biden must prove their ability to protect American higher education from CCP interference."
This was not the only time Nuland made comments sympathetic to China to advocate for the Obama administration's policy of engagement with the authoritarian country. In another press conference from 2011, Nuland said that she welcomed the "rise of a prosperous, successful China."
"We don't see China's rise as a threat, nor do we seek to contain China's rise," Nuland said.
The Confucius Institute's rapid expansion alarmed legislators on both sides of the aisles, prompting bipartisan action. The Senate unanimously supported a bill to rein in the influence of the Confucius Institute in 2020, after which the Democrat-controlled House passed a watered-down version of the legislation.
"Confucius Institutes are threatening academic liberty and free speech without shame, and too many American schools have fallen victim to the political con," Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.), the sponsor of the anti-Confucius Institute bill, said in August. "It's time to end Communist China's deceitful attacks on democratic freedoms."
The Confucius Institute continues to be a hot button issue in the Senate, which will decide whether to confirm Nuland to the undersecretary position. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden's pick for U.N. ambassador, received a severe grilling from senators during her confirmation hearing because she gave a paid speech for the Confucius Institute in 2019.