Utah lawmaker urges closure of Chinese Communist Party-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities

The non-binding resolution urges the University of Utah and Southern Utah University to close their programs by December 2022

(Matthew Pennington | AP file photo) This May 2, 2018, file photo shows undergraduate student Moe Lewis, left, displaying her watercolor painting of peony leaves at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. U.S. lawmakers — and now state legislatures, including Utah's — are pushing for tighter regulation or even closure of the more than 100 Chinese Confucius Institutes set up on campuses across America.

Members of a Utah House committee voted unanimously Wednesday in support of an effort to close Chinese language programs at two of the state’s universities over concerns that they pose a national security risk and could aid espionage efforts by the Chinese Communist Party.

These so-called Confucius institutes have been offering everything from language classes to cultural programming and outreach at U.S. universities since 2004. As of August 2020, there were 65 active programs in the country, according to the resolution from Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton.

But amid concerns about the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, which helps fund the institutes, 45 American universities in 30 different states, including in Utah, have moved to close the programs. And Pierucci wants to see the University of Utah and Southern Utah University, which continue to operate theirs, follow suit.

“I really think it’s essential for students on Utah’s campuses to have access to language and cultural offerings free from the manipulation of the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies,” Pierucci told the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday.

Her resolution, HJR8, commends the Utah universities that have already closed or are in the process of closing their Confucius institutes and “strongly encourages” the others to do the same by Dec. 1, 2022.

Megan Reiss, a national security policy adviser in Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s office, which worked with Pierrucci on the resolution, said Confucius institutes have been a “focal point” for the FBI and the intelligence community over the last few years amid concerns about espionage efforts targeting U.S. universities.

“These institutions are sold as language and cultural centers, but they’re funded by a known propaganda arm of the CCP, the Hanban,” she told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Pierucci noted during her presentation that the State Department has expressed concern about the institutes, saying that they “push out skewed Chinese language and cultural training for United States students as part of Beijing’s multifaceted propaganda efforts.” And the director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division has warned that the Chinese government has used the institutes to conduct espionage.

In addition to concerns about surveillance, Reiss said the institutes also pose questions about academic freedom, as Confucius institutes across the country have at times put pressure on college administrations not to allow events critical of the Chinese Communist Party or its policies.

Pierucci’s resolution requests that the schools with these institutes disclose to the Legislature any efforts by leaders of the programs “to influence events hosted by the higher education institution” and to release their contracts with Confucius institutes to the state.

Those contracts sometimes mandate that both United States and Chinese laws apply to the contract and say that the Chinese teachers must “conscientiously safeguard national interests,” according to the resolution. That can be problematic, Reiss said, because there are laws in China that require citizens to support the country’s intelligence gathering activities.

Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, ultimately voted in favor of the proposal but originally expressed concern that it would limit freedom of expression and association. He said an explanation of the resolution “sounded a little bit reminiscent of the McCarthy days when everybody was scared of communism, people were getting blacklisted, that kind of thing.”

Pierucci said her resolution was more about national security than about free speech but argued that Confucius institutes actually limit freedom of expression by “sanitizing Chinese history.”

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, was one of several lawmakers who expressed support for the resolution, noting that he was concerned about censorship but thought it was important to draw a “really clear bright line” on a matter of national security.

“Of course we don’t open our doors to espionage,” he said. “We don’t open our doors to having our society undermined in that way. But we do hopefully keep our doors open to ideas and to thoughts, whether we agree with them or not.”

No one spoke in favor of or against the resolution during public comment on Wednesday.

Christopher Nelson, a spokesman for the University of Utah, said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune that the school was already planning on closing its Confucius institute by mid-2023 but has moved that date up by about six months in light of this legislation.

Once the program closes, he said the U. would hold fewer cultural events and would lose some administrative fees and instructors in basic Mandarin, though he doesn’t expect that will affect the Chinese bachelor’s program.

Nelson said that the program was originally created by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had just finished his tenure as ambassador to China, and that the school hasn’t had “any concerns about the U’s institute being a hub for espionage or propaganda.”

The university has received about $200,000 annually for the program from the Chinese government, a drop in the bucket of its overall $5 billion budget.

David Bishop, a spokesman for Southern Utah University, said in a statement that the school has been monitoring the resolution “and met with the House sponsor as recently as today.”

“We have told Representative Pierucci that if the resolution passes the legislature, SUU will honor that request and begin preparations to close the institute,” he added.

The resolution now moves to the full House for further consideration.