Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) introduced a bill Wednesday that takes aim at curbing China's growing influence on college campuses.
The bill specifically targets the rise of China's Confucius Institute programs. The Chinese government has used the so-called cultural centers to coerce Chinese students into spying and limit academic freedom on campus. As of February 2021, some 48 American colleges and universities retain a Confucius Institute.
Often, Confucius Institutes are not required by law to disclose their business dealings with American schools, even after former secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared them "foreign missions" of the Chinese Communist Party in August 2020. The CCP program also has an associated K-12 program called Confucius Classrooms, which touts about 500 partner schools within the United States. Wilson told the Washington Free Beacon that his bill would work as a bulwark against Chinese propaganda on college campuses.
"Chinese Communist Party propaganda does not belong on American college campuses. Not only have CCP leaders touted Confucius Institutes as an arm of propaganda, but these institutes also have a history of limiting free speech and exerting control at American colleges and universities," Wilson said. "Institutions of higher education need to be transparent to both their students and the American public, especially when contracts and funding are being sourced from foreign governments. That is what the Foreign Influence Transparency Act works to accomplish."
The Republican bill would force schools to disclose any financial transaction above $50,000, a dramatic decrease from the current $250,000 threshold. It would also implement penalties for universities that attempt to dodge such disclosures. Offending universities could lose eligibility to participate in some foreign student visa programs.
Beyond Pompeo's designation of Confucius Institutes as foreign missions, Republican pressure on the CCP organizations has paid dividends. More than 50 Confucius Institutes have closed since 2017, and in some cases student activists pressure their schools to shutter the institutes on the grounds of Chinese human rights violations.
The Biden administration, however, has signaled a different approach to the Chinese organizations. In February, the administration withdrew a pending Trump executive order that would target the campus groups and ramp up disclosure mandates. Multiple senior Biden administration appointees, such as United Nations ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and undersecretary of state for political affairs nominee Victoria Nuland, have either defended or attended Confucius Institutes in the past.
Colleges and universities also use other means to attract Chinese capital to campus. American universities have received at least $88 million in Chinese funding in recent years, including from Chinese military-affiliated schools often considered security risks. Some colleges are looking to expand their ties to China. Stanford University, which still retains a Confucius Institute, opened a new center to study Chinese political and economic life with ties to organizations considered a security threat by China watchers. At least 52 of the 55 Confucius Institutes remaining in the United States have no plans to close.
Wilson said that he hopes the success of closing a Confucius Institute in his home state of South Carolina could translate to a national effort.
"After three years of open dialogue between the University of South Carolina and our office, I was grateful that they terminated their Confucius Institute at the end of last year," Wilson said. "I hope other universities and colleges will follow suit in both South Carolina and nationwide to protect our American interests."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.