Dems Water Down China Provisions in Defense Bill

GOP accuses Pelosi of 'gutting' enforcement against Chinese influence on campus

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December 18, 2020

House Democrats stripped down an anti-China bill that unanimously passed in the Senate by removing language reining in Chinese government influence on U.S. campuses.

The Senate's National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that authorized the Department of Education to withhold funding from U.S. universities that host Chinese government-backed Confucius Institutes on campus. House Democrats removed the measure from the final version of the bill following negotiations. Louisiana senator John Kennedy (R.), who helped write the anti-Confucius Institute measure, said Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) had "gutted" a key weapon to counter Chinese influence in academia.

"Communist China is still buying influence on U.S. campuses," Kennedy said. "Yet Democrats gutted an NDAA amendment that would protect academic freedom and give U.S. colleges control over what Confucius Institutes teach on our soil."

The NDAA provisions were originally part of the CONFUCIUS Act, which unanimously passed in the Senate in June. The House Democrats' decision to water down the provisions comes after Pelosi stonewalled action on the CONFUCIUS Act for months, pushing her caucus to vote down Republican attempts to put it on the House floor. The attitude is consistent with Democratic leadership's ambivalence when it comes to China-related issues: Pelosi and others have thus far ignored Republican requests to remove Rep. Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.) from the House Intelligence Committee after a report revealed that he unknowingly interacted with a Chinese spy.

Pelosi's office did not respond to a request for comment.

"Who could be surprised by Speaker Pelosi's refusal to crack down on China's infiltration of universities? She won't even crack down on Chinese Communist infiltration of the Democratic Party," said Indiana congressman Jim Banks, a Republican who has pressed for Swalwell's removal. "Speaker Pelosi only cares about national security if it furthers her narrow political interests, and again and again, those interests align with Chairman Xi's."

The amended version of the bill, which passed in Congress on Dec. 11 to be signed by the president, significantly modified the CONFUCIUS Act. The final version authorizes the Defense Department, not the Department of Education as in the original bill, to withhold federal funding from universities. The amendment narrowed down the focus of the bill to "safeguarding Defense-funded research activities instead of the broad range of protections the original bill contemplated," according to a senior congressional aide.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) blasted Democrats for failing to take decisive action against the Chinese government.

"The changes to the Confucius Institute language in NDAA are another example of the Democrats' China problem," McCarthy said. "Americans know a whole-of-society approach is needed to combat the Chinese Communist Party's attacks on our democratic freedoms. We must take a comprehensive approach, especially drawing from the China Task Force's recommendations, so that our solutions are not constrained in scope in this way."

Confucius Institutes have been a source of bipartisan concern for years, after reports emerged that the Chinese government was spending millions of dollars to maintain the Mandarin language programs in more than 100 U.S. colleges at its peak. Critics say the Confucius Institute distorts academic discourse by propagating a pro-Beijing narrative and banning its instructors from discussing topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, such as Tibet.

Despite the watered-down language, the legislation is still a step forward in Congress's efforts to reduce the influence of the Confucius Institute in the United States, according to Rachelle Peterson, the lead policy analyst at the National Association of Scholars, an education watchdog. The bill pertains to all Department of Defense funding for higher education, expanding an earlier ban on department funding for Chinese language education.

"It's disappointing to see at least some lawmakers fall for the farce that Chinese government-backed Confucius Institutes are a risk to be managed, not eliminated," Peterson said. "Still, I'm glad to see that Confucius Institutes remain on lawmakers' minds."