October 17, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1657

Managing Foreigners for China: The Confucius Institutes

October 17, 2022 | By J. Michael Waller*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1657


One of the hallmarks of the totalitarian assault on the West, whether by China or Russia or by predatory Islamism, is the complicity of the West itself in the assault. Some Westerners did it for money, while others shared ideological reasons of their own; they too hated the West and wanted to bring it down, whether motivated from far-left or far-right considerations. Some in the West, particularly in the United States, were also naïve. "Dialogue" and "encounter" were good in and of themselves and something to be welcomed, no matter the source or intention.

Ironically, of the three players mentioned – China, Russia, and Islamism – it was the least significant and weakest, the Russians, that garnered the bulk of the opprobrium in recent years. Some of this was due to the obsession of the American political elite and deep state in bringing down candidate and later President Donald J. Trump. There was supposedly a Russian angle there, although it turned out to be a partisan fantasy. Perhaps it was also due to the relative insignificance of the Russian threat inside the United States. To talk about China's much more substantial malign influence was, until very recently, to involve major American corporations and leading Western universities. Russia had no high-powered sports league or entertainment company shilling for them as China did. And to raise the issue of Islamism would involve such uncomfortable, complicated subjects as religion, immigration, and identity, all political minefields. Unlike Islamism, which involves multiple actors, many of them non-state players, China's efforts were orchestrated from the center of Chinese state power and aimed intentionally and strategically at the West (and also many other countries)

This is a case study by J. Michael Waller of an immense Chinese Communist Party (CCP) global influence operation designed to penetrate academic institutions and recruit foreigners worldwide. It is also a case study of how such an operation can be exposed and defeated. At issue are the Confucius Institutes, a global network of 550 (as of 2021) linguistic and cultural educational centers attached to Western schools and universities (and other schools and universities worldwide) to ostensibly teach the Mandarin language and Chinese culture.

The Institutes rely on the collusion, or turning a blind eye, of Western teaching institutions, their administrators, and faculty to Chinese government infiltration. All Confucius Institute curriculum and discussion are censored and controlled by a propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party. While funded by the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party's Propaganda Department, they are run operationally through Chinese embassies and consulates.

This massive tool of PRC 'soft power" seeks to partner with western universities which sacrifice academic freedom and scholarly integrity in order to maintain and expand those partnerships. They also appear to serve as a means for the Chinese Communist Party to scout, attract, assess, cultivate, indoctrinate, and recruit Westerners who seek or who presently pursue careers relating to China. Scholarship recipients include foreign officials, diplomats, and customs officers.

The Trump administration took a relatively hard line against these institutes and applied reporting requirements to federally funded-schools to disclose any "gifts" from China, and designated the Confucius Institutes as a "foreign mission." This would have forced the parent organization in the U.S. to register as a foreign agent. But both the Obama and Biden administrations have, for their own reasons, been more pliant and acceptable of this challenge. In 2009 the Obama administration actively encouraged the proliferation of Confucius Institutes across the United States. The Biden administration seems to be welcoming the reopening of the rebranded Confucius Institutes on American college campuses.

As in so many other cases, an adversary took the freedoms and openness of the West, especially of the United States, and turned these qualities against the West, while fashioning a tool of ideological subversion. Just like China repurposes the "woke" discourse of Western progressives to use as a tool against American foreign policy and the American model, so these Chinese institutes mimic the trappings of Western style universities – a very attractive model worldwide – to project power and influence foreign discourse on China.

This study by Dr. Waller, part of MEMRI's ongoing China Studies Project, is as much a cautionary tale as it is a research project. It should serve as a bright red alert for Americans to understand the importance of topics often overlooked in recent decades by our policy elites – ideology, propaganda, education, subversion – that our adversaries have readily come to appreciate as tools of statecraft.

Ambassador Alberto M. Fernandez

Vice President, Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)

Washington, D.C.

Distribution And Functions Of The Confucius Institutes

The bureaucratic logo betrayed the agenda: An unimaginative, two-dimensional stylized dove of peace superimposed over a flattened globe. The same tiresome motif of Soviet propaganda front groups from a half-century ago. Nothing to do with China or Confucius, and everything to do with centrally controlled "peace" propaganda.[1]

The Chinese Communist Party rehabilitated the ancient imperial Chinese social philosopher known in much of the outside world as Confucius, historical China's wisest sage. Repressed under Mao (his tomb was actually destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1966), Confucius and his teachings were officially rejected by the Communists as obstacles to social transformation. In the early 2000s, the Party revived Confucius as it became more nationalist and sought to project an image of greater concern and wisdom for public welfare.[2]

The CCP applied the Confucius label to its global network of Confucius Institutes that emerged worldwide in 2004, first in Seoul, South Korea, and then at the University of Maryland near Washington, DC, a major feeder school to the US intelligence community. That network grew to 550 institutes and more related teaching centers by 2021.

The Institutes' overt purpose is to build relations in foreign countries through teaching the Mandarin language and Chinese culture. Most Confucius Institutes provide introductory-level Chinese language instruction. In the United States they often offer noncredit language instruction to the public, and in some cases teach university students in accredited courses. Sometimes they embed themselves in university language departments to provide language instruction. A Congressional Research Service report offers a larger description:

"The Institutes often work with university departments to co-sponsor Chinese cultural events, academic seminars, and conferences focused on doing business in China. They also sponsor programs for US students and scholars to study Chinese language in the PRC, and they serve as platforms for academic collaboration between US and Chinese universities."[3]

The CCP uses the Chinese language as a major channel of what a French military study called "psychological seduction." It immerses the subjects in Chinese culture and among Chinese people, while creating a CCP narrative rich in ancient traditions, art, writing, and a cultural Marxist worldview.[4]

Command And Operational Structure

Confucius Institutes operate under a Beijing-based parent entity called the Center for Language Education and Cooperation, better known by its earlier name, the Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban.[5] For consistency's sake, this report will use the term Hanban in all cases. By either name, Hanban is tied to the Ministry of Education. It is funded by a CCP-run "nongovernmental charitable organization" called the Chinese International Education Foundation, sponsored by the Ministry of Education and made up of "universities and corporations" which ostensibly fund the Confucius Institutes.

In an apparent effort to make them look independent from the Chinese Communist Party, the name-change and bureaucratic reshuffling to create a "nongovernmental charitable organization" occurred in 2020, while the Confucius Institutes underwent withering attack internationally.

Hanban is run by a committee whose leader, Sun Chunlan, is a Vice Prime Minister of China, a member of the CCP Political Bureau, and a former manager of the Party Central Committee's United Front Work Department. The Hanban's presiding committee includes the chief of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which in 2018 was integrated into the United Front Work Department. Operationally, Confucius Institutes receive support and direction from the cultural affairs offices of Chinese embassy in the country that each institute carries out its mission.[6]

How The United Front Work Department Operates

The CCP United Front Work Department is an international political influence system to monitor and enforce Party discipline among Chinese citizens abroad, ethnic Chinese people abroad who are not citizens of the People's Republic of China, foreign governments, foreign educational and cultural institutions, foreign news media, and foreign business and financial sectors, among others. The United Front Work Department coordinates with Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and Confucius Institutes abroad. United Front Work includes harassing Chinese dissidents, foreign ethnic Chinese who oppose the Communist Party, and other foreigners opposed to the CCP.[7]

The United Front concept is a Soviet import to China, introduced by Stalin, for promotion of Party political goals. It became a mainstay of Chinese foreign policy toward Africa and other developing countries targeted for colonization – the full slogan being "united front against imperialism" – in the 1980s.[8] Xi Jinping expanded the United Front concept to an all-of-government and all-of-society strategy in 2012. At the national strategic level, it is directed by the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), a coordinating mechanism between the CCP Politburo Standing Committee and interest groups under Party control. Operationally, United Front Work is directed by the Party's United Front Work Department" in coordination with other Party entities abroad.[9]

One of its five principles is to "Make the foreign serve China."[10]

Confucius Institute Structure And Functions

Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the ruling Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party and the party's top propaganda official until 2012, publicly called the Confucius Institutes "an important part of China's overseas propaganda set-up."[11]

In each country, the operation runs on two levels. The first is directed at universities through actual Confucius Institutes. An ancillary operation, directed at younger students in primary and secondary education, are the Confucius Classrooms.

These two levels are officially established in a three-way relationship between the Hanban, the host university or school abroad, and a CCP-controlled university from the mainland that assigns language instructors to the Confucius Institute at that host university or school.[12] Reportedly, the agreements could be modified or made flexible, depending on the host institution. In the case of American schools, some secrecy was involved. Certain "U.S. host schools reportedly have resisted disclosing their agreements."[13]

Each Confucius Institute provides cash to each host school or university in annual grants averaging between $100,000 and $150,000, and as high as "several million dollars" at some institutions, according to a French military report;[14] and annual operating costs ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 in the United States, with host institutions providing matching or in-kind support, some privately raised.[15]

The money from the Chinese side comes from the CCP Propaganda Department and overseen by Chinese diplomatic personnel in the host country.[16]

The Hanban provides the educational/indoctrinational material to the local host teaching institutions, as well as scholarships for chosen foreign participants to study in China for between six months and 10 years. The operation was so massive that by 2020, this system brought about 50,000 students to China from 166 counties.[17]

Confucius Institute Presence Internationally

By 2021, nearly 550 Confucius Institutes operated worldwide.[18] There are at least 57 institutes in Africa and 37 in Latin America. The country with the largest number of institutes was, by far, the United States.

The proliferation of Confucius Institutes in free societies is credited to what one observer called "an alarming willingness to accept money at the expense of principles that universities are ostensibly devoted to upholding."[19] More importantly, in the context of an ambitious "100,000 Strong Initiative"[20] promoted in 2009 by U.S. President Barack Obama in consultation with the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, and expanded to a "1 Million Strong Initiative,"[21] the Confucius Institutes had the tacit, if not explicit, official endorsement by the United States government.

Beijing had planned for 1,000 Confucius Institutes worldwide by 2020.[22] However, by that time the Covid-19 pandemic had spread worldwide from Wuhan amid intense disinformation from Beijing, and private critics of the institutes, who had documented their functions and abuses, found more receptive audiences.

Prior to that, by about 2017, the U.S. government had pressured taxpayer-funded universities that served as feeder schools to the national security and intelligence communities to sever their ties with the Confucius Institutes or risk losing the value of their degrees for students seeking security clearances for classified government work. At the political level, the Trump Administration and other governments, squeezed from above.

All these factors either pressured or provided cover for universities to take action, and the number of Confucius Institutes shrank sharply.

Confucius Institute Presence In The United States

From 2005, with its University of Maryland operation, to 2017, the Chinese government ran 103 Confucius Institutes in the United States, mostly on university campuses; and by 2019 ran Confucius Classrooms in about 500 American primary and secondary schools. Beijing invested $158 million in these operations between 2016 and 2019.[23]

More than 6,000 American high school students visited China at the expense of the Hanban since 2007.[24]

In almost every case in the United States, universities would go publicly with the fiction that the Confucius Institutes were independent and under American institutional control. The institutes have oversight boards, acting as fig leaves, made up of administrators and scholars from the host institution and counterparts in China. In the U.S. case, a Mandarin-speaking faculty member or administrator, clearly an American citizen, would sit as the apparent head of the local Confucius Institute, though in some cases there would be a dual leadership with a CCP academic figure.[25]

Nature Of Targeted Students

In addition to students intending to become influencers as teachers, journalists, scholars, analysts, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, business leaders and the like, scholarship recipients – especially in developing countries – include active foreign officials, diplomats, and customs officers.[26]

Politicization And CCP Control

Traditionally, governments have sponsored language schools abroad such as the Alliances Françaises, the British Council, the German Goethe Institute, and Spanish Instituto Cervantes, to serve as instruments of public diplomacy or cultural diplomacy. The U.S. government has done the same through American Cultural Centers or Binational Centers connected the Public Diplomacy sections at U.S. Embassies overseas. These initiatives help local students to learn the language and cultures of the sponsoring country, and build open relations with no politicization or manipulation.

The Confucius Institutes, by contrast, being under strict Party control, are heavily politicized. "Universities that accept [Confucius Institutes] on Beijing's terms, with all the compromises they entail, signal they are willing to set aside academic principles to build good relations with China [and] indicate normal due diligence does not apply to relations with Chinese universities and firms," according to United Front expert John Fitzgerald.[27] Early on they raised objections from parents in the United States as promoting "communist propaganda."[28]


The CCP controls all Confucius Institute personnel: "The Hanban then recruits and trains the new teachers who are appointed to the institutes solely based on the Hanban's decision… once there, they can receive instructions from the embassy or the consulate. The linguistic resources (books, audio or video media) are also elaborated by the Hanban," according to the French military study.[29]

Political control of teachers on foreign campuses was refined in 2016 and implemented in 2017. The qualifications included "good political and professional qualities" and "love for the homeland,"[30] consistent with Xi Jinping's tightening of political and nationalistic controls.

Educational Material

All Confucius Institute curriculum and study aides are prepared by the Hanban under CCP control, and distributed to cooperating institutions worldwide for the indoctrination of local children, teens, college students, and professionals. The materials include attacks on the United States and its allies, such as an animated documentary for foreign children about the Korean War to show the Americans as the aggressors. Public exposure caused the documentary to be withdrawn.[31]

Geographic Distribution

Confucius Institutes have been established in 166 countries and territories, including Greenland with its remote location and sparse population. The Greenland operation failed after 2018.[32]

Leverage Over Host Schools And Universities

An Australian study shows that Confucius Institutes implement their programs to provide the CCP with "leverage over the host institutions."[33] The great 2021 French study of Chinese influence strategy sums up a range of information on this leverage:

"The problem with CIs is not so much the propaganda they spread by the influence they exert on university administrators, Salvatore Babone explained. Beijing delivers the institutes with the funding, teachers and their remuneration, the learning material, and sometimes even the dedicated buildings. For universities – particularly those with tight budgets – being offered a revenue-generating center free of charge is hard to refuse. This can create a dependence, if not a full subjugation, that allows Beijing to have an influence on certain choices of the university, sometimes on the content of some research programs (to limit the research on Tibet, Taiwan, or China's influence strategy, for instance), on the choice of guest speakers, and ultimately, on the way the university speaks of China and of Chinese interests. In all cases, it creates a form of self-censorship."[34]

Some scholars who watched the Confucius Institutes said that the organizations "exert influence in US universities through PRC Board members' interpersonal relations and the Institutes' involvement in China-related programs and connections to educational and research opportunities in China," according to the Congressional Research Service.[35]


Confucius Institute pressure on schools worldwide to censor themselves have been well documented: cancellation of a Falun Gong exhibit at Tel Aviv University in Israel, 2008;[36] dis-invitation of the Dalai Lama to visit North Carolina State University in 2009 and the University of Sydney in 2013; and cancellation of a documentary critical of Confucius Institutes at Victoria University in Melbourne in 2018.[37]

Hanban Director Xu Lin personally demanded the removal of references to Taiwanese institutions in the 2014 conference program for the European Association of China Studies at the University of Minho in Portugal.[38]

Western academics who failed to follow Hanban orders were cut off at the knees. The University Lyon 3 in France had enjoyed a rather autonomous Confucius Institute until a new Chinese director started enforcing the CCP line. "We considered this interference from a structure emanating from China inappropriate because it was susceptible to compromise our academic freedom but also the spirit and rules of higher education in the French Republic," said Professor Gregory Lee. Beijing would make Lee pay by cutting off the cash: "the Hanban director demanded his head and announced the interruption of the annual contribution without notice." Lee closed the Institute shortly afterward.[39]

The Confucius Institutes had so encroached upon academic freedom that the American Association of University Professors in 2014 called on educational institutions to terminate their ties unless they could meet impossible conditions of transparency, autonomy, academic freedom, and the like, as did the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

"Some reports provide examples of Confucius Institute Board members or PRC officials directly or indirectly pressuring faculty, administrators, or invited guests at US universities that host Confucius Institutes to avoid making public statements or holding events on topics that the PRC government considers politically sensitive," according to the Congressional Research Service. "Other reports suggest that there have been few instances of Confucius Institutes overtly attempting to interfere in academic and extra-curricular activities and speech at US host universities."[40]

"Confucius Institutes offer censored courses about Chinese language and culture, using books and teachers chosen and paid for by the Chinese government," the National Association of Scholars reported in the United States. "They provide China an easy way to monitor American professors, pressure universities to kowtow to China's preferences, and keep an eye out for useful information and technology."[41]

Pressure On Other Faculty

The Confucius Institutes serve as outposts to spy or inform on American professors with China expertise who have no Institute affiliation. The intent is to influence scholars not to divert from the CCP line while teaching their students in American classrooms, and to provide the CCP with an enforcement mechanism to deny access to China that any scholar of the country would need to remain academically relevant. Such professors "have also reported feeling pressure in their classes to watch what they say and avoid Confucius Institute taboos. Many are wary that the wrong statement might land them on a blacklist, forbidden from visiting China for research."[42]

The Institutes' presence on campus then allows the CCP to apply pressure on American university leaders to ensure Party conformity in their American classrooms. Similar pressure has been reported in other countries. Targeted professors "believe university administrators are tiptoeing around China – and asking their professors to do the same – to make sure nothing interrupts the profitable relationship with the Confucius Institute. 'This is my career and livelihood on the line,' said one senior professor … explaining why he wished to remain anonymous in [a National Association of Scholars] critique of Confucius Institutes."[43] And so the United Front Work Department enlists willing and unwilling foreigners to act on behalf of the CCP.

Distinguished scholars critical of the Confucius Institutes found themselves marginalized and alienated from their own corrupt peers even before these institutes get off the ground. A French Ministry of the Armed Forces report recounted, "the implementation of a CI [Confucius Institute] in a university often brings about controversies, and is susceptible to divide the teaching staff, if not marginalize some of the best specialists on China because they are critical of CIs and, as such, of their colleagues cooperating with the institute, or receiving its funding."[44]

One scholar explained, "even the most well-established experts in Chinese studies can find themselves isolated and at odds with their colleagues when they raise concerns. The worst-case scenario is when academics no longer feel able to work in a university that does not respect their professional standards, suffering from ostracization, exclusion from the university, and denial of promotion…."[45]

Some academics report being physically threatened for criticizing the Confucius Institutes. The French report cites a 2021 case in Slovakia, in which the director of the Bratislava Confucius Institute "attempted to intimidate" the director of the Central European Institute of Asia Studies, Matej Simalcik, considered "one of the leading China experts in Central Europe." After publishing research on CCP influence in the Slovakian educational system, Simalcik received a letter from the head of the Bratislavia Confucius Center, who made "explicit threats" against his person.[46]

Infiltration Of Western Educational Institutions

China infiltrated the Ministry of Education in the Australian state of New South Wales which, as the French study noted, meant that "Beijing had appointed employees (potentially agents) inside an Australian ministry."[47] The CCP provided language curriculum and study aids, which Australian taxpayers funded, and some schools made the CCP materials mandatory. "This decision shocked many parents, some describing this program 'as the infiltration of the Chinese Communist Party into the NSW public school system.'"[48]

Propaganda Themes And Non-Themes

Confucius Institutes dutifully promoted CCP themes and non-themes (that is, subjects forbidden for discussion under Party policy) in their language and cultural education programming.

China and Chinese life were portrayed as the CCP wanted them portrayed, while subjects awkward for the Party, such as human rights, religious persecution, the conquest of Hong Kong, the repression of Tibet and Xinjiang, and the present status or future invasion of Taiwan, were forbidden for discussion or avoided.[49] The Uighur minority in Xinjiang, Tibet and Tibetan people, supporters of Taiwan's independence, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, and democracy activists are referred by the CCP as the "five poisons."[50]

Many if not most of the American institutions conceded to CCP pressure and permitted – even enforced – the self-censorship. Some "larger, more prestigious" schools "reportedly have successfully pushed back against or prevented PRC interference in university events, such as speaking engagements by the Dalai Lama and other figures opposed by the Chinese government,"[51] but the examples are few.

North Carolina State University, after being squeezed by its own Confucius Institute, disinvited the Dalai Lama in 2009.[52] The university sponsored four outside Confucius Classrooms, ran an estimated 636,000 people through the covert CCP programs, and "trained some 1,330 teachers in how to teach and talk about China."[53]

Then there is the issue of reciprocity. There is no genuine academic exchange between the Confucius Institutes worldwide and schools in mainland China. Everything is one-way.

Money has also been a gray area. The Congressional Research Service observed what it called "possible incomplete reporting by U.S. universities to the Department of Education regarding funds received from China for their Confucius Institutes,"[54] raising the possibility of fraud and corruption in American higher learning. This fits what appears to be a larger pattern of non-reporting of CCP funding of US education. The FBI found that even among the most prominent faculty of the most prominent universities received large sums – often millions of dollars – through secret or unreported side deals with Chinese Communist Party schools, organizations, laboratories, and companies under the Party's "Thousand Talents" program.[55]

It isn't only dishonest individual faculty or even academic departments, but entire schools that engage in fraudulent activity and misleading reporting to conceal cash they receive from the CCP. A bipartisan Senate investigative report found that "Nearly 70 percent of U.S. schools with a Confucius Institute that received more than $250,000 in one year for Confucius Institutes failed to properly report that information to the Department of Education."[56]

Espionage And Crime

For years, sharp-eyed Western observers voiced concern that Confucius Institutes served as CCP instruments for intellectual property theft, cyber espionage, and traditional forms of human espionage, especially to attract, assess, cultivate, and recruit foreigners as agents.

FBI Director Christopher Wray disclosed an ongoing investigation of how the CCP uses "professors, scientists, students" to commit espionage through American academic institutions. Wray scored American academic institutions for their high "level of naiveté" concerning China and for failing to defend the interests of their students and faculty.[57]

Among China's instruments of subversion and espionage, Wray said in 2018, were the Confucius Institutes.[58]

Authorities in Canada and Europe reached the same conclusion. Confucius Institutes "are espionage outstations for Chinese embassies and consulates through which they control Chinese students, gather information on perceived enemies, and intimidate dissidents," wrote Canadian scholar John Manthorpe. Confucius Institutes, he said, are "a major CCP international propaganda and espionage operation masquerading as a cultural exchange program."[59]

Belgian authorities expelled and banned the director of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel Confucius Institute, Song Xinning, on suspicion of espionage and operating as a recruiter for Chinese intelligence. The school's Confucius Institute was soon closed.[60]

Part Of Wider, 'Whole-Of-Society' Influence And Espionage Strategy

The Confucius Institute system is a component of the Chinese Communist Party's far more comprehensive, global, "whole-of-society" strategy of influence and espionage abroad. Whole-of-society refers to exploiting every element of human society and weaponizing it to suit the needs of the CCP.

Influence strategy is to attract, cultivate, and recruit foreigners who are, or have the potential to be, influential in academia, journalism, business, politics, government (including diplomacy, military, and intelligence), culture, technology, finance, and other fields to serve as witting or unwitting agents of influence for the CCP.

Influence strategy includes mobilization of citizens of the People's Republic of China as students to organize pressure groups supportive of the CCP and in opposition to anything or anyone opposed to the CCP. In the United States, about 150 chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association are organized to conduct CCP counterintelligence against other Chinese students for the regime by informing on those who voice opposition to the regime and its leader, Xi Jinping. They have been reported to organize events, including parades, praising Xi and to great senior CCP officials when they visit the US.[61]

Espionage strategy attracts, cultivates, and recruits people from those same fields to become spies – not only in government, but in business, technology, medicine, and practically any walk of life.

"China sends its People's Liberation Army (PLA) military officers undercover, as students to Western universities, urging them to curry favor with top engineering professors and take home the latest developments in supersonic missiles or navigation," according to a National Association of Scholars report.[62] Universities in the United States have hosted about 500 Chinese scientists linked to the PLA to perform academic and other work, among more than 2,500 nested into universities in the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom.[63]

Rolling Back The Confucius Institutes

The ease with which the Confucius Institutes infiltrated Western educational institutions finally met resistance around 2014, when a combination of Chinese regime overreach and push-back from parents and governments in host countries began to turn the tide.

The American Association of University Professors and the Canadian Association of University Teachers made strong statements schools to sever ties with the Confucius Institutes. The University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University were the first to do so.[64] These were followed by a powerful documentary, "In the Name of Confucius," and publication of a major National Association of Scholars report titled Outsourced to China.[65]

In the United States, the National Association of Scholars broke a widespread academic taboo and published a comprehensive report on the network.[66]

For years, Confucius Institutes, when faced with allegations against them, played the victim of racial prejudice and "Cold War mentality." Their supporters abroad defended the Institutes, saying that they offered Chinese language and cultural education and experiences that benefited students, academic institutions, and communities.[67]

In the United States, the intelligence community and the Trump administration viewed the Confucius Institutes as centers to indoctrinate students, assess and recruit students who held professional positions or were on a career path to do so, and thus to compromise the military, intelligence, and diplomatic communities. In 2018, the National Security Agency pressured the University of Texas system to remove the Confucius Institutes from their campuses or risk losing accreditation as feeder schools to the intelligence community.[68]

That same year, FBI Director Christopher Wray began warning American educational institutes about the danger of the Chinese programs.[69] Later he revealed that the FBI had begun investigating Confucius Institutes at several universities. During a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, the FBI director was asked about the Bureau's concerns about "Confucius Institutes as a tool of that whole of society effort" aimed at exploiting American academic institutions. The director replied, "We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes. We have been watching that development for a while … and in certain cases have developed appropriate investigative steps."[70]

Predictably, a prominent higher education professional publication implied FBI-inspired bigotry: "Some worry his testimony risks tarring a big group of students as a security threat."[71]

This coincided with letters from federal lawmakers to each school in the Florida and Texas public university systems to expel Confucius Institutes and sever all ties. "Within hours" of receiving letters from their congressmen, the Texas A&M System announced it would close down both Institutes under its purview.[72] For years, a lone congressman advised the two universities in Massachusetts with Confucius Institutes to shut them down and warned 38 others never to open one.[73]

The first school, University of Massachusetts-Boston, ultimately agreed to sever ties, but the second, Tufts University – a private school with its prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy then headed by a respected retired four-star admiral – set up a "review" group but dawdled for nearly two years until pressure from students forced the issue. The students pressured Tufts reluctantly to announce it would end the relationship after the contract expired in the 2021 academic year.

Even then, the University praised the Confucius Institute for having "made a valuable contribution to Chinese language and culture learning at Tufts" and for having "helped to facilitate Tufts' important relationship" with Beijing Normal University. Tufts then expressed gratitude to BNU, "our partner in China, for its support for and role in developing the CITU's programming from 2015 to 2021," announced that Tufts would be "expanding and deepening its relationship with BNU."[74] No more Confucius Institutes exist in Massachusetts, but not because the universities objected in principle.

A Shell Game To Preserve What They Pretend To Shut Down

Other universities ended their ties to Confucius Institutes, most of them without public comment. Even then, at times it became a shell game. Pfeiffer University kept its Confucius Institute alive by moving it, in embarrassed silence, to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Others, like the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, made no statement at all until much later, when it became socially acceptable to do so, with others masking the severance as part of bureaucratic reorganization or budget cuts.[75]

Still others, like the University of Michigan, admitted in its announcement closing the Confucius Institute that it would explore new opportunities with the CCP's Hanban that runs the networks. Like Tufts, the University of Massachusetts in Boston continued its relationship with its Beijing sister that helped it set up the Confucius Institute, Renmin University.

The University of Hawaii said it severed relations "in order to maintain federally funded research and educational opportunities for its faculty and students," but nevertheless heaped praise on the CCP. "We thank the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China for 13 years of support of our K-6 community and outreach efforts," the university said in a news release.[76]

No university, administrator, or faculty member was ever held accountable anywhere in the United States for hosting a covert Chinese Communist Party program that endangered students and faculty.

Some American academic leaders openly defended the Confucius Institute. One of them, Arizona State University Vice President Matt Salmon – a former Republican Member of Congress – spoke at a National Press Club event in Washington that was sponsored by the Chinese government. He said he was "incredulous" that anyone would say that the Confucius Institute "somehow poses a security threat," calling the Institute "a real, real blessing."[77]

Salmon's defense backfired. Noting that the U.S. Department of Defense had provided funding for Chinese language education through the Arizona State Confucius Institute, Salmon made an exaggerated comment that the Confucius Institute at his school had Pentagon endorsement. That prompted Senator Ted Cruz to make the severance a matter of federal law.

Congress passed a Cruz amendment to prohibit the use of Department of Defense funds not only for Chinese Language instruction at a Confucius Institute, but to ban any Pentagon funding for Chinese language programs at any institution of higher education that hosts a Confucius Institute."[78] More legislation followed.

The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a scathing report in early 2019.[79] At about the same time, the University of Texas at Austin rejected an offer of a large amount of cash from the China United States Exchange Foundation, described as "the principal funder of UT Austin's Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs," to fund a new graduate program. The Foundation's president, Tung Chee-hwa, was discovered to be part of the CCP's global influence apparatus and a vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.[80]

The Trump Administration issued new requirements based on the Higher Education Act to compel federally funded universities to report certain "gifts" from foreign sources. The US Department of Education then cracked down, opening investigations of four federally funded universities as "part of a larger U.S. national security initiative to address foreign influences on U.S. campuses."[81]

The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter in 2020 to all 74 American colleges that hosted Confucius Institutes, urging them to request briefings from the FBI.[82]

The following year, the Trump Administration designated the Confucius Institute in the U.S. Center (CIUS), a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization which oversees all Confucius Institutes in the US, as a "foreign mission" of the People's Republic of China. That designation compelled CIUS to file regularly with the federal government as a Chinese Communist agent. Later in 2020, the Trump Administration drafted a Department of Homeland Security rule to require American academic institutions to disclose their contracts with Confucius Institutes, but the draft failed to complete bureaucratic review process before the presidential transition in early 2021. The Department of Homeland Security under the incoming Biden Administration did not resubmit it for review,[83] even after multiple requests from Congress.[84]

The US Senate unanimously passed a bill to cut off funds to universities that would benefit the Confucius Institutes, but it was blocked in the Democratic-controlled House.[85]

A major human rights organization published an influential report about how the Confucius Institutes undermine academic freedom outside China.[86]

Other universities shut down Confucius Institutes for denying students academic freedom, though the timing is curious because the closures coincided with the Trump administration's broad crackdown on Chinese espionage and active measures. In 2018 and 2019, no fewer than 15 schools closed Confucius Institutes in the United States.[87] However, the end of 2021, only 31 Confucius Institutes remained, down from more than 100.[88] By April, 2022, the National Association of Scholars counted 18 remaining Confucius Institutes on US soil, two of which were expected to close by the end of June, two of which would close at an unspecified date, and one whose relationship was "paused" pending a university "review."

American academic institutions gave various reasons for shutting down the Confucius Institutes, according to the Congressional Research Service report, including: "concerns about academic freedom; the potential for Chinese government influence and risks to US national security; differences between US educational institutions and the Institutes over missions and objectives; changing curricular needs; declining interest or enrollment; difficulties of operation due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the desire to keep DoD [Department of Defense] Chinese Language Flagship funding; and encouragement by some Members of Congress."[89]

In Australia, the New South Wales state government closed 13 Confucius Institutes in public schools in August 2019,[90] and ousted the Confucius Institute personnel embedded in its education ministry later that year.[91]

In July 2020 alone, more than 50 universities across nine countries – including the U.S., Canada, and France – terminated Confucius Institute operations on their campuses.[92] Confucius Institutes were shut down at universities in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, and Sweden.[93] By early 2021, Germany followed suit, with the universities of Düsseldorf and Hamburg shutting them down, and actions taken in other cities to stop public funding and cooperation.[94] Germany's Minister of Education and Research later said, "I do not want the Chinese government to influence our universities and our society. Germany must admit self-critically: In some places in the past, we have given too much space to the Confucius Institutes, and have done too little ourselves to build up independent China expertise in Germany."[95]

Retrenchment, Reorganization, And Rebranding

Faced with this onslaught of opposition in a global counteroffensive, the CCP reorganized the Beijing-based mechanisms for funding the Confucius Institutes and Confucius classrooms, and ultimately did away with any reference to Confucius.

In response to pressure from the Trump Administration and Congress, the CCP in June 2020 re-named the Hanban, calling it the Center for Language Education and Cooperation. The official Xinhua News Agency statement made it seem as if the Center was a new entity rather than a simple name change. Hanban director Xu Lin was out, with her deputy, Ma Jianfei, installed in her re-named place. With the Hanban change came creation of a new "non-governmental" foundation pretending to be a neutral space between the Confucius Institutes and the CCP.[96]

To do away with the baggage the Confucius name had become – and to get around federal legislation banning funds that would in any way support Confucius Institute activity in the U.S. – the institutes changed their names and parent corporate shell.

The Asia Society, which for years had boasted of its sponsorship of the Confucius Institutes in the United States, purged its online media of any reference. Instead, it uses the Confucius Institute's new name: the Chinese Language Partner Network. "The new program is functionally identical to its predecessor and teaches the same materials in the same schools," according to a news analysis. One university pretended to close its Confucius Institute, but simply changed the name to "China Center."[97]

The Pendulum Swings Back

Beijing continues to revive the Confucius Institute concept as part of a regrouping and counteroffensive.

Within a week of taking office in January, 2021, the Biden Administration had the Department of Homeland Security drop plans drafted by the Trump Administration to require American higher education institutes to disclose any agreements with the Confucius Institutes or their equivalents.[98]

By early 2022, only 14 of the 118 Confucius Institutes in the United States remained. With the cooperation of American professors and universities, the Chinese Communist Party's re-branding effort began under new entities with new names. "This has proven an effective strategy," a National Association of Scholars study noted, "and at least 38 universities that closed a Confucius Institute have replaced or sought to replace it with something similar." The name "Confucius Institute," according to NAS, has become "toxic."[99]

Just as the Hanban that runs the Confucius Institutes changed its name in 2020 to the Ministry of Education Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation (CLEC), CLEC "spun off a new nonprofit organization, the Chinese International Education Foundation" to run the institutes. The purpose, according to the CCP's English-language Global Times, was to "disperse the Western misinterpretation that the organization served as China's ideological marketing machine."[100]

An assistant director of the former Confucius Institute at the University of Washington said that the Hanban's Ma Jianfei had noted that the Institutes, or CI's, in the United States "are now facing challenges and many are to be closed but Hanban sees it as an opportunity to restructure/remap the CI's across the world." The Hanban then retained the services of American academic figures to repackage and reorganize the Confucius Institutes across the United States and to try to mislead people into viewing them as a Chinese version of Germany's respected Goethe Institutes.[101]


The Chinese Communist Party's whole-of-society approach to indoctrination, subversion, and espionage against the rest of the world depends, in part, on continued infiltration of schools and universities worldwide. The CCP has strong cadres of willing partners in business, journalism, and educational institutions worldwide to enable this offensive. It has shown itself willing and able to adapt to unpredictable or undesired circumstances, and has benefited from being forced to metamorphose its organizations, names, and operations.

At the same time, the American, Canadian, European, and other hosts of CCP institutions have been able to push back hard – especially when fueled positively or negatively by public documentation and media exposure. Exposure from a relatively few scholars and private organizations, pushed by a few elected lawmakers and government officials, energized action to force universities to declare their hidden relations with the Chinese Communist Party and potentially lose their federal funding. Combined with the counterintelligence and other national security threats and active warnings from domestic security and law enforcement services, the Hanban's efforts in free countries can be pushed back. This has happened and needs to continue.

Beijing is seeking to expand and recalibrate its vast influence machine to change perceptions about its regime and with it, about its efforts to influence and indoctrinate foreign audiences. Instead of retreating, it is responding to these recent major setbacks as opportunities to find more discreet, more subversive ways of penetrating foreign higher education and influencing future generations. Chinese "soft power" under guise of educational cooperation will remain a threat to free societies for as long as the Communist Party is in power.

*J. Michael Waller is President of Georgetown Research, a private intelligence company based in Washington, DC, and is Senior Analyst for Strategy at the Center for Security Policy. He is a lecturer in psychological operations at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. For 13 years he held the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair in International Communication at the Institute of World Politics graduate school. He holds a PhD in international security affairs from Boston University, where he conducted advanced research on communist security and intelligence services, propaganda, disinformation, and active measures. During the Reagan Administration he served as an operator for the White House Active Measures Working Group and the State Department's Office to Counter Soviet Active Measures and Disinformation.


[1] Paul Charon and Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, Chinese Influence Operations: A Machiavellian Moment (Paris: Institute for Strategic Research, French Ministry for the Armed Forces), 2021.

[2] John Dotson, “The Confucian Revival in the Propaganda Narratives of the Chinese Government,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, July 20, 2011, p. 3.

[3] Thomas Lum and Hannah Fischer, “Confucius Institutes in the United States: Selected Issues,” Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, updated December 2, 2021.

[4] Paul Charon and Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, Chinese Influence Operations: A Machiavellian Moment (Paris: Institute for Strategic Research, French Ministry for the Armed Forces), hereafter referenced as IRSEM, p. 299.

[5] "Confucius Institutes in the United States: Selected Issues," Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, updated December 2, 2021, hereafter referenced as CRS Report.

[6] IRSEM, p. 299.

[7] Alexander Bowe, "China's Overseas United Front Work: Background and Implications for the United States," U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, August 24, 2018, p. 3.

[8] See G. P. Deshpande and H. K. Gupta, United Front Against Imperialism: China's Foreign Policy in Africa (Bombay: Somaiya Publications), 1986.

[9] Alexander Bowe, "China's Overseas United Front Work: Background and Implications for the United States," U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, August 24, 2018, citing June Teufel Dreyer of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, pp. 3-4.

[10] For an expanded study of the concept, see Anne-Marie Brady, Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the Peoples Republic (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

[11] "A Message from Confucius: New Ways of Projecting Soft Power," The Economist, October 22, 2009, cited by IRSEM, 306.

[12] IRSEM, p. 299.

[13] CRS report, p. 2.

[14] IRSEM, p. 300.

[15] CRS report, p. 2.

[16] Alexander Bowe, "China's Overseas United Front Work: Background and Implications for the United States," U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, August 24, 2018, citing Richard McFadden, former director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.

[17] IRSEM, pp. 299-300.

[18] CRS report, p. 1

[19] Ethan Epstein, "How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms," Politico, January 16, 2018, cited by Bowe.

[20] Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, "Can 1 Million American Students Learn Mandarin? Obama just announced a new initiative promising just that – and all by 2020," Foreign Policy, September 25, 2015. The original 2009 State Department source has been archived and is not available online.

[21] "Fact Sheet: President Xi Jinping's State Visit to the United States," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 25, 2015.

[22] Bowe, p. 13.

[23] CRS report, pp. 1-2.

[24] Allen-Ebrahimian.

[25] CRS report, p. 2. CCP figure is added by author.

[26] IRSEM, p. 300.

[27] John Fitzgerald, Director, CSI Swinburne Program for Asia-Pacific Social Investment and Philanthropy, interview with U.S.-China Economic Security and Review Commission staff, June 27, 2018, cited by Bowe, p. 13.

[28] Chris Welch, "China-sponsored language programs in U.S. raise concerns, hopes," CNN, January 19, 2011.

[29] IRSEM, p. 300.

[30] James King and Echo Hui, "Confucius Institute Chinese Language and Culture Teachers Must 'Love the Motherland' to Apply," ABC Australia, July 16, 2019, cited in IRSEM, p. 303.

[31] IRSEM, p. 303. Still available on YouTube at

[32] IRSEM, p. 301.

[33] Hamilton, "Chinese Communist Party Influence in Australian Universities," cited in IRSEM, p. 301.

[34] IRSEM, p. 304.

[35] CRS report. 2.

[36] Ofra Edelman, "Court: TAU Bowed to Chinese Pressure Over Falun Exhibition," Ha'aretz, October 1, 1009, in IRSEM, 304.

[37] IRSEM, 304

[38] Elizabeth Redden, "Censorship at China Studies Meeting," Inside Higher Ed, August 6, 2014, cited by IRSEM, 304

[39] IRSEM, 305.

[40] CRS report, 2.

[41] Rachelle Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes," Academic Questions, Summer 2019.

[42] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes."

[43] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes."

[44] IRSEM, p. 305

[45] Christopher Hughes, "Confucius Institutes and the University: Distinguishing the Political Mission from the Cultural," Issues and Studies, 50:4, 2014, p. 66. Cited in IRSEM, p. 305.

[46] IRSEM, p. 305.

[47] IRSEM, p. 302.

[48] Kelsey Munro, "Behind Confucius Classrooms: The Chinese Government Agency Teaching NSW School Students," Sydney Morning Herald, May 29, 2016, quoted in IBID, p. 302.

[49] See Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes," for details.

[50] Sarah Cook, "The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship: How the Communist Party's Media Restrictions Affect News Outlets Around the World," Center for International Media Assistance, October 22, 2013, p. 11.

[51] CRS report, p. 2.

[52] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes"

[53] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes"

[54] CRS report, p. 2.

[55] FBI Director Christopher Wray, "The Threat Posed by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party to the Economic and National Security of the United States," remarks to the Hudson Institute, July 7, 2020.

[56] "Senators Portman & Carper Unveil Bipartisan Report on Confucius Institutes at U.S. Universities & K-12 Classrooms," Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, United States Senate, February 27, 2019.

[57] Wray, July 7, 2020.

[58] Wray, as cited by Bill Gertz, "FBI Investigating Confucius Institutes," Washington Times, February 14, 2018.

[59] John Manthorpe, Claws of the Panda: Beijing's Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2019), p. 192.

[60] IRSEM, 306.

[61] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes."

[62] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes."

[63] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes," citing Kathlerin Hille, "Chinese military researchers exploit western universities," Financial Times, October 29, 2018.

[64] Sharon Bernstein, "Two Major US Universities Cut Ties with China's Confucius Institutes Over Its Government Connections," Reuters, as carried in Business Insider, October 1, 2014.

[65] Rachelle Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes."

[66] Rachelle Peterson, "Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education," National Association of Scholars, April 2017.

[67] "Confucius Institutes in the United States: Selected Issues," Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, updated December 2, 2021.

[68] Author's confidential source, May, 2018.

[69] Brooklyn Draisey, "FBI Warns Universities Against Confucius Institute," The Daily Iowan, February 16, 2018,; Ian Seamans, "Confucius Institute Under FBI Scrutiny," University of Texas-Dallas Mercury, April 23, 2018.

[70] FBI Director Christopher Wray, transcript with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), "Video: Rubio Raises Concerns About the Growing Threat Posed by China," February 13, 2018. See the video of the full hearing on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence website:

[71] Elizabeth Redden, "The Chinese Student Threat?" Inside Higher Education, February 15, 2018. .

[72] The active lawmakers were Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Representatives Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Michael McCaul (R-TX).

[73] The congressman was Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA).

[74] James M. Glaser, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences; and Diana Chigas, Senior International Officer and Associate Provost, "Decision to Close the Confucius Institute at Tufts University," Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President, Tufts University, March 17, 2021.

[75] Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes."

[76] William Cole, "University of Hawaii's Confucius Institute closes as FBI raises alarm," Honolulu Star-Advertiser, July 30, 2018.

[77] Rachelle Peterson, "Hanban Triage: A DC Panel Tries to Save Confucius Institutes," National Association of Scholars, May 4, 2018. .

[78] National Defense Authorization Act for FY2019, Public Law 115-232, Section 1091.

[79] "China's Impact on the US Education System," Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, United States Senate, February 2019.

[80] Rachelle Peterson, "The Confucius Institutes."

[81] "The U.S. Government Investigates U.S. Universities Participating in the 'Confucius Institutes' Program," National Law Review, August 20, 2019.

[82] "Grassley to Schools: Confucius Institutes Are Fronts for Chinese Propaganda; Just Ask FBI," Office of Senator Chuck Grassley, March 12, 2020.

[83] "Confucius Institutes in the United States: Selected Issues," Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, updated December 2, 2021.

[84] Letter to President Joseph Biden from the House Republican Leader, and the Republican Leaders on the House Committees of Education and Labor, Foreign Affairs, and Homeland Security, February 17, 2021.; "Portman, Romney, Rubio, Grassley Urge President to Implement Rule on Confucius Institutes," Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, February 23, 2021.

[85] Yuichiro Kakutani, "Pelosi Stonewalls Bill That Would Crack Down on Chinese Influence in U.S.," Washington Free Beacon, September 20, 2020.

[86] "Resisting Chinese Government Efforts to Undermine Academic Freedom Abroad: A Code of Conduct for Colleges, Universities, and Academic Institutions Worldwide," Human Rights Watch, March 2019.

[87] CRS report, p. 2.

[88] CRS report, p. 2.

[89] CRS report, p. 2.

[90] "New South Wales to End Chinese-Funded Confucius Institute Education Program," Japan Times, August 23, 2019.

[91] IRSEM, p. 302.

[92] "The New Red Scare on American Campuses," The Economist, January 4, 2020, cited by IRSEM, p. 302.

[93] "How Many Confucius Institutes Are in the United States?" National Association of Scholars, April 5, 2022.

[94] Thomas Weider, "Berlin regrette d'avoir 'laissé trop d'espace' au reseau Confucius," ("Berlin regrets having 'left too much space' for the Confucius network"), Le Monde (Paris), July 9, 2021, p. 5, cited by IRSEM, p. 302.

[95] "Germany too dependent on Confucius Institutes, minister warns," The Times Higher Education Supplement, 2486, July 8, 2021, cited by IRSEM, p. 302.

[96] IRSEM, 306.

[97] Yuichiro Kakutani, "China-Backed Confucius Institute Rebrands to Avoid Scrutiny," Washington Free Beacon, March 17, 2021.

[98] Bill Gertz, "Joe Biden Ends Confucius Institute Disclosures," Washington Times, February 10, 2021.

[99] Rachelle Peterson, Flora Yan, and Ian Oxnevad, After Confucius Institutes: China's Enduring Influence on American Higher Education (New York: National Association of Scholars, 2002), p. 24. .

[100] Chen Xi, "New NGO to Operate China's Confucius Institutes, 'Disperse Misinterpretation,'" Global Times (Beijing), July 5, 2020, as cited by Peterson, Yan, and Oxnevad, p. 26.

[101] Peterson, Yan, and Oxnevad, p. 27.

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