China Creep on Campus

Dozens of universities failed to disclose millions in Chinese donations

Harvard University
June 15, 2020

Dozens of top American universities that received funding from the Chinese government failed to disclose those donations to the Department of Education, prompting concerns from education watchdogs about Beijing's growing influence on campuses.

More than 100 U.S. universities host or once hosted Confucius Institutes, programs underwritten by the Chinese government that teach Chinese language and culture to American college students. The Department of Education requires all credentialed universities to disclose foreign gifts of more than $250,000, but only about 30 percent of institutions with Confucius Institutes have disclosed their financial ties to Beijing, according to a Washington Free Beacon review of federal records.

The Free Beacon reached out to all 75 institutions that did not report their funding to the federal government; 22 of them responded. A common theme of the responses was that the colleges did not disclose their donations because their annual receipts did not meet the $250,000 threshold. For example, a spokesman from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville said the college declined to disclose its 2019 Confucius Institute donations because it received only $246,711.

Rachelle Peterson, director of policy at the National Association of Scholars, called the lack of accountability at prestigious universities "alarming."

"It is extremely alarming how little transparency there is," she said. "$250,000 is much too high of a threshold. Gifts of money at much smaller amounts can be very swaying over a college or university, especially the humanities [departments] which traditionally have lower funding."

The Chinese government has funneled millions of dollars to American universities to support more than 100 Confucius Institutes across the country. Colleges such as the University of Michigan, University of Maryland, and Emory University, which did disclose funding, have received $30.4 million in total between 2014 and 2020 for their Confucius Institutes, according federal filings.

But experts warn that the widespread failure to report the foreign funding leaves millions of dollars worth of Chinese government funding in the dark.

Policymakers and education experts alike have long warned that Confucius Institutes might be a conduit for Chinese influence on American campuses that could restrict academic freedom and promote a distorted account of Chinese history and culture that favors the Chinese Communist Party. Senate and federal investigations have corroborated some of these concerns, finding that the Chinese regime directly hires teachers for the program and prohibits them from saying anything negative about China to students.

"The Chinese Communist Party doesn't need to seek the consent of the governed," Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said. "And [they] are very used to—within the context of China—being able to censor debate. They want to do the same thing in the United States through different means, and the Confucius Institutes are one of the ways in which it does it."

The Chinese government almost always pays U.S. universities that host Confucius Institutes, though some exceptions exist. A 2019 Congressional Research Service report found that Hanban—a "public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education," according to its website—typically provides a $150,000 start-up fund to universities, as well as $100,000 to $200,000 to cover operating costs every year, although many Confucius Institutes have much larger budgets.

The foreign gift and contract report, compiled biannually by the Department of Education, lists all foreign donations that universities have reported to the federal government since 2014. The Free Beacon compared that report with a list compiled by the National Association of Scholars of all Confucius Institutes in the United States. The analysis found that 108 U.S. universities currently or previously hosted Confucius Institutes on their campuses. Out of that total, only 33 institutions have reported any foreign funding stemming from the program in the past six years. Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago—none of which returned requests for comment—as well as 72 other U.S. colleges have not reported Confucius Institute funding in the last six years.

Universities are legally required to disclose to the federal government any funding that exceeds $250,000 annually from a single foreign source. A 2019 Senate report found widespread noncompliance with this reporting requirement, as roughly 70 percent of universities that received more than the $250,000 threshold from Confucius Institutes failed to properly report those donations to the Department of Education.

"The investment by China in U.S. Confucius Institutes is substantial," the 2019 report read. "A number of U.S. schools, however, failed to properly report this funding as required by law."

The Department of Education did not return requests for comment.

Peterson of the National Association of Scholars called the $250,000 reporting threshold "outdated," adding that it is easily undermined by both China and American universities. She said that colleges often rely on legal loopholes to dodge disclosure requirements. In the past, colleges have argued that donations given to their university foundations do not need to be reported to the federal government. The Department of Education appears to be cracking down on this particular loophole: California State University told the Free Beacon that the agency recently "clarified" that donations to "institutionally related organizations" must also be reported.

The Department of Education's crackdown is part of wider efforts to enforce the foreign gifts reporting requirements. In 2019, the agency launched a probe to track noncompliance with the disclosure requirement. Federal investigators found that Harvard and Yale alone failed to report $375 million in foreign funding, including lucrative donations from China—though neither hosted Confucius Institutes on campus.

The initiative has already yielded results. Universities have retroactively disclosed $6.5 billion in previously unreported foreign funding from Chinese and Middle Eastern sources, according to a department letter to House Republicans. Universities with Confucius Institutes appear to be no exceptions to this new wave of disclosures. Six universities, including the University of Nebraska and West Virginia University, revealed nearly $3 million in Confucius Institute funding in the most recent foreign gift and contract report that it did not disclose previously. None of those universities responded to requests for comment.

Despite recent progress in compelling disclosure, the Department of Education also told House Republicans that colleges are stonewalling their investigation. "Certain institutions have yet to produce requested emails, metadata, and other information regarding business relationships with, and faculty funding from, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Russian foreign sources," the letter read.

Confucius Institutes have faced pushback from students as well. Dozens of activists, supported by hundreds of College Democrats and College Republicans chapters, launched the Athenai Institute in May to call for the "immediate and permanent closure of all Confucius Institutes in the United States," as well as a full disclosure of all university ties to Chinese state agencies and proxies.

"The Chinese government’s flagrant attempts to coerce and control discourse at universities in the United States and around the world pose an existential threat to academic freedom as we know it. It is a civic and moral imperative that we protect that freedom," the Athenai Institute said in a statement.

Confucius Institutes have declined in influence on American campuses in recent years, currently operating 81 programs in the United States, down from 103 in 2017. The decline, Peterson said, was precipitated by growing public scrutiny that has made the programs more of a liability than an asset for universities.

"Just a few years ago, colleges were advertising their Confucius Institutes as evidence that this is a campus with global ties and with a strong language curriculum," she said. "The biggest thing that has changed is that the nation has woken up to what Confucius Institutes are ... and colleges and universities are finding that it increasingly hurts their brand, rather than helps their brand."