What’s the first thing you think of when you think of China? The Great Wall? Ming vases? Terra cotta warriors? Inexpensive goods to buy at Walmart? How about espionage, military build-up in the South China Sea, production (and thus control) of 90% of U.S. antibiotics, active propaganda campaigns and genocide? It’s all of those.
China has been actively engaged in steering public conversations in pro-China ways by any means possible, including broad censorship at home and slap-downs abroad. Tiananmen Square? It either didn’t happen (if you live in China) or “stopping the turbulence” was the correct policy. COVID-19? Must be the fault of a U.S. lab in Maryland. Capitol Hill riots on January 6? They prove the U.S. is a failed state. Genocide? Anecdotal hyperbole spewed by a “doomsday clown.” Pfizer vaccine? Killing the elderly.
It’s no surprise that China has been promoting pro-China stories for years. Beijing has literally been buying up media outlets and training scores of foreign journalists to ‘tell China’s story well,’ according to a 2018 report. In 1945, Mao Zedong said “We should carry on constant propaganda among the people on the facts of world progress and the bright future ahead so that they will build their confidence in victory.” Xi Jinping has issued multiple directives to state journalists to spread “positive propaganda” for the “correct guidance of public opinion.
One avenue China has been using are the 100 or so Confucius Institutes at universities across the United States. In 2019, a bipartisan report was released in Washington D.C. that found, among other things, that “the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools, including its funding, staff, and all programming, with veto authority over events and speakers.” Just so we are clear, the “Chinese directors and teachers at Confucius Institutes pledge to protect Chinese national interests. Chinese teachers should “conscientiously safeguard national interests” and their contract terminates if they “violate Chinese law” or ‘engage in activities detrimental to national interests.’”
In August of 2020, the U.S. State Department designated the Confucius Institute United States Center, “a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China” and notes that Confucius institutes ‘push out skewed Chinese language and cultural training for United States students as part of Beijing’s multifaceted propaganda efforts.” These gift horses sound nice, but like the Trojan horse of lore, they are designed to be presented and taken in as a gift, with the intent to do harm.
In Utah, Representative Candice Pierucci is running a resolution asking Utah’s universities to close down their Confucius Institutes because of these grave concerns. There are currently two in the state – at the University of Utah and Southern Utah University. Both have indicated a willingness to close. The resolution,SJR8 passed unanimously out of committee and had a single no vote as it passed off the House floor. It and a resolution from Rep. Brad Brammer denouncing the Chinese genocide of Uigyhur Muslims have stalled in the Senate. A records request shows both support from someone who is a Chinese immersion teacher and opposition that includes language that could be considered threatening.
The letter in support reads, in part: “Last month, I received a reminder email from my Supervisor that we teachers are NOT to discuss any topics which are political in nature. I believe that your proposal again would be considered political. Therefore, I don’t see any of us being able to address such issues since the CCP funds our Immersion program and the Chinese Hanban teachers are all Communist party members. The saddest part to me is that my former students are preparing for their AP tests and none of them know anything about Mao, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Hong Kong, etc.”
The response in opposition claims that the resolution against genocide is “based on false or twisted information,” that “reeducation camps are far better than jails and prisons,” that federal officials don’t know what they are talking about and then this: “it would be in the best interest of Utah and yourself to abandon” the resolution.
Speaking of federal officials, Senator Mitt Romney has been sounding the alarm about China for years, including during his 2012 run for president. Last spring, he wrote an op-ed specifically about the threat China poses to the U.S. and said the following: “China relentlessly badgers and bribes nations to avert their leaders’ eyes from its egregious abuses of Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities — as well as its targeting of pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong. The same methods result in the geopolitical isolation of Taiwan. All the while, China spreads pacifying propaganda throughout the world; even right under our noses, so-called Confucius Institutes peddle pro-China messages in America’s colleges and high schools.” (emphasis added).
He tweeted earlier this month that “Confucius Institutes—CCP-backed programs that spread propaganda to our youth—threaten our national security. I urge the Administration to require that schools disclose ties to the CCP and take a hard look at whether these Institutes should even be allowed to operate in the U.S.”
Confucius Institutes—CCP-backed programs that spread propaganda to our youth—threaten our national security. I urge the Administration to require that schools disclose ties to the CCP and take a hard look at whether these Institutes should even be allowed to operate in the U.S.
— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) February 16, 2021
Senator Mike Lee co-sponsored legislation with Senator Marsha Blackburn in 2020 that sought to “minimize Chinese efforts to exert inappropriate influence” via Confucius Institutes which “repress free speech and discourage transparency.” Senator Lee said “At many schools, Confucius Institutes have acted as extensions of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Rep. Chris Stewart tweeted earlier this month when President Biden ended a proposed rule from the previous administration that would have required U.S. schools to disclose financial ties to CCP-backed Confucius Institutes, saying “This is a national security mistake. The U.S. cannot trust China’s regime.”
President Biden quietly ended a proposed rule from the Trump era that would’ve required U.S. schools to disclose any financial ties or connections to the CCP backed Confucius Institutes. This is a national security mistake. The U.S. cannot trust China’s regime. https://t.co/b3YLpUcveZ
— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) February 10, 2021
In the meantime, Congressman John Curtis tweeted his support for the bill noting that “The GOP @China_TaskForce previously raised concerns & the State Department has warned of CCP propaganda coming from their programs.”
Pleased to see the Utah Legislature move forward on HJR8—calling on our universities to close their Confucius Institutes. The GOP @China_TaskForce previously raised concerns & the State Department has warned of CCP propaganda coming from their programs. https://t.co/nfaIXO2nx2
— Rep. John Curtis (@RepJohnCurtis) February 11, 2021
Ronald Reagan used an old Russian proverb when talking about nuclear weapons: Trust, but verify. A number of United States universities trusted the Chinese government when Confucius Institutes were not only proffered but funded and staffed. Now that the State Department has verified what is really going on, it’s time to disentangle ourselves from these propaganda machines.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy. She is also a PhD candidate in Political Science, focused on Public Administration and International Relations.