WASHINGTON — Senate investigators are warning that China has opened government-run centers at more than 100 American college campuses, pouring over $158 million into Confucius Institutes that spread Chinese influence while going largely unmonitored by the U.S. government.
China's government "controls nearly every aspect" of the institutes, including the funding, staffing and programming, according to a new, bipartisan report from the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Their proliferation has also prompted espionage concerns and attracted significant interest from the FBI, including from its Counterintelligence Division.
The warning comes amid heightened concern about whether China's growing global footprint, propelled by massive investments in everything from foreign roads and ports to 5G wireless technology, pose a security and counterespionage risk to the United States and other countries.
President Trump has lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping, and on Sunday announced that he will hold off on a promised tariff increase because Xi plans to come to his Mar-a-Lago resort for a summit aimed at resolving the trade war. China also plays a central role for Trump as he holds a second nuclear summit this week in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose country is heavily reliant on Chinese trade.
The Confucius Institutes, which bill themselves as language and cultural centers, started popping up in the United States in 2006. The roughly 110 institutes that now exist in 44 U.S. states are among more than 500 worldwide, all controlled by Beijing through its Ministry of Education. China typically invests $100,000 to $200,000 to build a center and then another $100,000 or so per year to operate it, Senate investigators say.
The institutes are so controversial that at least 10 U.S. schools have announced plans in recent months to shut them down. In Canada, the province of New Brunswick shuttered its only institute, and British lawmakers have called for halting any new ones in the U.K.
For American campuses, the lure has been difficult to resist. With little to no investment of their own, schools get an infusion of instructors, language training and cultural programming from a region that many American students are eager to learn more about.
Yet the concern is that those investments come with significant strings attached.
Senate investigators found that discussion of politically sensitive topics like Taiwan were prohibited at Confucius Institutes and that requirements at some schools that teachers follow Chinese law risked extending censorship to U.S. soil.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who chairs the Senate panel, said U.S. schools are allowing a level of access to the Chinese government that can "stifle academic freedom" and provide an "incomplete picture of Chinese government actions and policies that run counter to U.S. interests at home and abroad."
"Absent full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for U.S. cultural outreach efforts on college campuses in China, Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States," Portman said.
Although Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the panel, said the Senate had uncovered "no evidence that these institutes are a center for Chinese espionage or any other illegal activist," the institutes have drawn scrutiny from the FBI for years.
FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate last year that law enforcement was "watching warily" and was in some cases taking investigative steps. And Bill Priestab, the FBI's counterintelligence chief, warned last month that the institutes are "ultimately beholden to the Chinese government."
"There have been instances where those institutes appear to have quashed free speech," Priestab told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence and an NBC News law enforcement analyst, says American schools need to be aware of the risks in entering into relationship with Confucius Institutes "because clearly there's an opportunity for exploitation by the Chinese intelligence services, when you see the kind of money being thrown at the funding."
"Universities and communities that believe they're getting something for nothing need to understand that's not how it works," Figliuzzi says. "There's an agenda here, and the Chinese government uses other platforms to penetrate our society and shape and influence our thinking and our stance toward China."
The investigation by Portman and Carper faults both the State Department and the Education Department for insufficient monitoring of the institutes and for failing to demand equal access from China's government for U.S. cultural institutes that seek to operate there.
Federal law requires U.S. schools that receive a foreign gift greater than $250,000 per year to report it to the Education Department. But Senate investigators found that 70 percent of schools who received that amount or more from China didn't properly report it, with no apparent consequences.
And the State Department does not keep track of how many J-1 educational visas have been given to Confucius Institute teachers, the report says, making it hard to track when those visas are used improperly.
Investigators found that the State Department has only conducted field visits at two Confucius Institutes — both in 2018 — and found visa violations at both, such as fraudulent paperwork or misuse of research visas. The State Department told the Senate it plans to perform four visits this year to institutes.
At one school that the State Department visited, officials found evidence of deception, the report says, including that the institute's co-director had conducted rehearsals before their arrival to practice what they would say about what they were researching at the institute. The report doesn't identify the school.
The State Department said its authority to monitor the activities of Confucius Institutes is limited, but that where possible, "we are robustly monitoring and working with designated university sponsors to ensure compliance with all relevant Exchange Visitor Program regulations."
The Education Department didn't respond to requests for comment, though officials from both agencies were expected to testify about the topic before the Senate panel on Thursday. The Chinese Embassy in Washington also didn't respond to an email seeking comment.
The Confucius Institute U.S. Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that says it exists to support the 100-plus institutes in the U.S., said it had not yet seen the Senate report but argued that Confucius Institutes are "university programs where actual learning takes place."
"They are individual college learning centers that teach Chinese language and culture operated by and at the universities themselves," the group said in a statement.