Utah House backs call to close Chinese Communist Party-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities

The resolution, which did not receive a vote in the Senate, comes amid concerns that the programs pose a national security risk.

The Utah House gave a second vote of approval Tuesday to a resolution that calls on two of the state’s universities to close their Chinese language programs amid concerns that they pose a national security risk and could aid espionage efforts by the Chinese Communist Party.

House lawmakers previously approved the bill as a joint resolution of both the House and the Senate. But after it became clear it would die in the Senate without a vote, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, brought the proposal back to become solely a House resolution.

The proposal passed with a 69-1 vote Tuesday night, with Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, voting in opposition.

It’s unclear why the resolution didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate. But Senate President Stuart Adams had previously expressed concern about the proposal, telling reporters last month that he hadn’t yet read the language but would be examining it and a resolution condemning genocide in China to see if they would affect the state’s trading relationship with the country.

I think every issue that the Legislature comes up with probably has some validity to it,” he said. “I think we want to make sure that we also weigh that against what we want to do as far as a body and the effects it has on some of our partners. I think those specifically may affect our relationship with China. So I think we’d look at those and weigh those accordingly.”

The resolution “Condemning the Treatment of the Uighur Ethnic Community by the Chinese Government” from Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, also passed favorably through the House but has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate.

The so-called Confucius Institutes targeted in Pierucci’s resolution 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 Pierucci.

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.

Her resolution, HR8, 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.

“In every relationship, boundaries should be in place,” she said during debate of the bill on Tuesday. “This is putting healthy boundaries in place on our relationship with China — specifically the Chinese Communist government and the Chinese Communist Party.”

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.

David Bishop, a spokesman for Southern Utah University, said previously that if the resolution passed, the school would honor the request and “begin preparations to close the institute.” It’s unclear whether it will do so now that the resolution has only received support in the House.