MU’s Confucius Institute is a tool for communist propaganda, a “threat to academic freedom” and a “danger to our national defense,” and the university should cut ties with it, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in a Wednesday letter to Chancellor Alexander Cartwright.
Hawley’s letter and comments came after a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday. The hearing focused on national security and economic espionage efforts by the Chinese government.
In response to questions from Hawley during the hearing, Wray testified that Confucius Institutes have exhibited “a fairly significant pattern of espionage” and called them “part of China’s soft power strategy and influence.”
In an earlier hearing in February 2018, Wray said the FBI was investigating Confucius Institutes for potential espionage activity.
Over the past year, Confucius Institutes at 10 universities, including the University of Iowa, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago, have closed. There have been more than 500 of the institutes worldwide and over 100 at U.S. universities.
Christian Basi, MU spokesperson, said academic espionage has been an issue in higher education for some time and that MU’s leadership has had the problem on its radar for about the past two years. Officials have met with the FBI on campus to discuss the issue.
“From those conversations, we have made some changes to policies and procedures to help us strengthen our ability to discourage anyone from partaking in any kind of activity that would result in academic espionage,” Basi said.
MU is “very aware” that other universities have terminated their relationship with the institute while others have continued, Basi said. MU’s contract with the institute, which expires at the end of 2021, will be reviewed, he said.
“So we’re going to take a look and see why did those (other universities) stop their agreement, why did others continue it?” he said, “How is our agreement different or similar to those? And make our decision based on that.”
MU’s Confucius Institute opened in 2011. Since then, MU has received over $1 million from the Chinese Ministry of Education’s Hanban office, which funds the programs.
Former Chancellor Brady Deaton at the opening ceremony for the institute dismissed the idea that the program would put pressure on MU to stifle free speech or constrain education, which was of public concern in 2011.
Since its founding, MU’s Confucius Institute has partnered with Columbia Public Schools, participated in summer courses on Chinese language and culture with the school district and presented over 2,000 Chinese volumes to Ellis Library.
In 2009, Li Changchun, a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party, said the program was “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup,” according to Hawley’s letter.
The Hanban office supplies textbooks and instructors that portray a “positive image” of China and also prevent discussion of the “three Ts: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square,” the senator wrote.
“I respectfully and strongly urge you to reconsider the costs and risks that come with allowing a Confucius Institute to remain on your campus, and with entering any other agreements with the Chinese government,” Hawley wrote.
No one answered the phone at the Confucius Institute on Wednesday afternoon.