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My Guest

Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization dedicated to upholding “the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.” In that position, she has published numerous reports on trends in academia that threaten these values and principles, including one on the subject of this podcast titled Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education. Mrs. Peterson’s research and commentary has been published in outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, and Commentary magazine. She has discussed her research on the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal and on numerous radio shows.

Given China’s increasing efforts to flex its soft power muscles in the West, I had Rachelle on the podcast to discuss the size, scope and nature of the threat posed by Confucius Institutes on American college campuses. While presenting themselves as benign centers of cultural exchange and language studies, Rachelle’s extensive research and study indicate that Confucius Institutes are actually Chinese government funded and staffed tools for propaganda, surveillance and allegedly espionage, that not only intimidate American faculty but provide the Chinese government leverage over our academic institutions. They are a unique microcosm of the goals, strategies and tactics employed by China — exactly the kind of challenge on the ideological front we are likely to face for years to come.

What We Discussed

  • What Confucius Institutes are, and how the Chinese government is responsible for controlling virtually every aspect of their operations
  • Confucius Institutes’ propagandizing on college campuses to whitewash Chinese governmental abuses and create a more favorable public image in the West
  • Efforts to stifle academic freedom and criticism of China by way of Confucius Institutes’ contracts
  • The ideological and financial reasoning behind why U.S. academic institutions invite Confucius Institutes to their campuses, and the leverage the Institutes provide China
  • Rachelle’s chilling findings in extensively examining 12 Confucius Institutes, including the fears of several of those interviewed to go on record
  • Blowback from the Chinese government in the wake of the release of Rachelle’s report
  • What makes Confucius Institutes unique relative to other foreign cultural exchange programs on college campuses
  • Current legislative efforts by members of U.S. Congress to scrutinize and counter the efforts of Confucius Institutes
  • And much more

Other References

Thanks for Listening!

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Full Transcript

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ben Weingarten: Rachelle, most people would be surprised to know that Chinese-funded cultural exchange, or educational institutions exist in partnership with and on U.S. college campuses, and even at some high schools. In particular, I think they’d be shocked to know that as National Association of Scholars [NAS] President Peter Wood wrote in the preface to your report on the Confucius Institutes, off the record accounts confirm that these institutions are “centers of threats and intimidation directed at Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans, and as cover for covert activities on the part of the Chinese government.” So what are these Confucius institutes?

Rachelle Peterson: They are covert threats that are working to co-opt American colleges and universities. The Chinese government has a strategy of trying to make the foreign serve China. This means taking institutions in other countries, and as much as possible, trying to co-opt them so that their own interests align with the Chinese government interests. When that comes to colleges and universities, that means not the interests of students at those universities, not the interests of professors who are teaching at those universities, not the interests of the United States, but the interests of the Chinese government.

So the way Confucius Institutes are set up is they’re designed to give the Chinese government, a source of financial leverage over colleges and universities. The Chinese government offers funding to set up these centers. It offers teachers that are selected and paid by the Chinese government. It offers textbooks that are printed, selected and paid for by the Chinese government. And it offers a host of other financial benefits such as lavish trips to China for college administrators, speaking opportunities in China, visits to the campus by high-ranking Chinese dignitaries and other kinds of benefits that persuade the university that setting up a Confucius Institute is a good idea — even though it usually comes at the expense of academic freedom, it almost always involves censorship about what students learn about China and it provides a way for the Chinese government to keep tabs on Chinese nationals at those colleges and universities watching to see if they are keeping in line with the Chinese Communist Party and watching to see what kinds of ideas they’re trying out and what kinds of things they’re saying while they’re studying abroad in the U.S. So it really is a threat to American students, to American faculty members, to Chinese students studying in the U.S., but also to the United States as a whole, as it’s working to turn these American institutions away from U.S. interests and towards the interest of a foreign authoritarian government.

Ben Weingarten: And let’s start with the name, “Confucius Institutes” because there’s something sort of Orwellian about that name. And you write about this in your extensive report on these institutions where basically what Xi Jinping in tow with the other leaders of the Communist Party have done is appropriated Confucius. And just as there is socialism with…[Chinese] characteristics, there’s also, Confucianism, adopted for the socialist, communist vision, which is that of Xi Jinping and the ruling party there. So tell us a little bit about the background of that name, Confucius institutes.

Rachelle Peterson: Well, it’s interesting because Confucius Institutes really have nothing to do with Confucius. They don’t teach anything about Confucius. The Chinese philosopher really comes up only as a picture that American students have of something familiar with China, something that’s approachable. You can imagine that having “Mao Institutes” on campus might not look quite so good, but Confucius was chosen, really just to be a touchstone, a familiar point for Americans.

And it’s part of this broader strategy in China of trying to take over Confucius’ image. The Chinese Communist Party, of course, had an extensive effort to eradicate Confucianism. It went so far as destroying Confucius’ grave. But now, under Xi Jinping, there’s a realization that Communism is not wholly satisfying for people, and they need some kind of civic and moral touch points. And Xi Jinping is trying to take Confucius’ image and resurrect and remake it in the image of the Chinese Communist Party. So, Confucius institutes are one piece of that larger strategy in China, but they’re also just the name. Confucius is just serving as a familiar point for American students who see him as someone approachable and familiar.

Ben Weingarten: From a practical perspective, what gives a foreign country like China — who of course we have substantial trade relationships with; on the other hand, there’s an adversarial element to the relationship both on the economic side in terms of intellectual property theft and the like, and then, espionage, for example of the hack of the Office of Personnel Management, 21 million individuals records stolen by the Chinese government…How is it possible that a foreign country like China with this sort of adversarial relationship towards the U.S. is able to set up such programs as these on U.S. college campuses in the first place.

Rachelle Peterson: There are two reasons. One is ideological: American college campuses on the whole are not opposed to communism necessarily. So on some college campuses, the Chinese government finds a warm welcome from professors or administrators who see nothing wrong with promoting a communist government. But the second reason is financial. Colleges and universities are always eager for more money wherever it comes from, and tend to not pay too close attention to what strings may be attached. Or they justify themselves by claiming that whatever demands may be placed on them as a result of this money, they can manage those, and they can handle the Chinese government and make sure that nothing compromises the university. That is a judgment that American colleges have made, but they’ve not been able to live up to — academic freedom has been compromised, censorship has been enforced on college campuses as a result of Confucius Institutes. But those financial incentives are very strong, and it’s hard for American universities and their administrators to turn those away.

Ben Weingarten: And in your report you even noted with respect to this idea of the financial leverage that this gives the Chinese government over U.S. institutions, some of which are cash-strapped institutions, that there’s even the concept of potentially turning off the flow of Chinese nationals into American schools. So in other words, there’s leverage even from the idea that Chinese students can come to the U.S. and study because that is tuition dollars for the university. So this is part of an even more comprehensive effort to exert leverage over U.S. schools.

Rachelle Peterson: That’s a really good point. China is the number one source of foreign students in the U.S., with about 35,000 students a year coming from China. As foreign international students, they are not eligible for in-state tuition. They’re not eligible for any scholarships, or the normal grants and loans that colleges and the federal government provide, and often they are subject to higher special international tuition rates for colleges and universities. This [foreign national student tuition] is a huge source of income for them [the schools] that they are really dependent on. So when the Chinese government indicates that by setting up a Confucius Institute, “You’ll have a higher profile in China, you’ll have greater access to Chinese students, we may even recommend that Chinese students choose your university,” that’s an additional incentive for colleges and universities. And once they have the Confucius Institute, [it’s] a strong incentive for them to keep it, whatever the risks that they may be becoming aware of.

Ben Weingarten: Now, when we talk about the Chinese government influence over Confucius Institutes, the specific organ that you’re referring to is the Hanban, which is an organ of the Communist Party in China. What is the Hanban? And how specifically does it influence these Confucius Institutes?

Rachelle Peterson: The Hanban is an agency within the Chinese Ministry of Education. It is responsible for setting up Confucius institutes as well as a similar program called “Confucius Classrooms” at K-12 schools, and has a variety of other international exchange programs. The Confucius Institutes are the largest of them. The Hanban, as an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education, is part of the Chinese government. It is overseen by a council of twelve members, including representatives of multiple state agencies in China, including ministries that are charged with propaganda. So it’s very closely related to the Chinese government, and the people in charge of the Hanban have a lot of crossover with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. So, Xu Lin, the Director General of the Hanban, is a career bureaucrat from the Chinese Ministry of Education. She is also a member of the State Council, and a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party. So the Chinese government’s fingerprints are all over Confucius Institutes, and this really is closely tied with their efforts at using their cultural diplomacy as a form of foreign policy.

Ben Weingarten: I think it bears noting here that there’s also a parallel even when it comes to the economic relationship with China, which is there have been a spate of articles that we have seen in Western publications over the last year discussing the fact that to the shock of many of the executives, American executives, and European executives who do business in China, there are actually now Chinese Communist Party [for lack of a better term] apparatchiks being installed within…private firms, and who are actually having more and more direct control even over business and financial decisions of those companies. So I think it bears noting here that just as the Hanban influences these purported cultural exchange and language programs, there’s a similar thing occurring with respect to…other firms that do business in China that are Western…

Now you spoke to numerous individuals in carrying out a number of case studies and compiling this extensive report who demanded total anonymity as a condition for saying virtually anything regarding these Confucius Institutes. Why?

Rachelle Peterson: Two reasons: One is, concern for retribution from the Chinese government. The Chinese government does not mess around with critics of China. It takes them very seriously. And scholars who are studying China know very well the risks that they run when they criticize the Chinese government. Many of them have been denied visas, which is basically a death sentence, for their research career. If they can’t conduct interviews, if they can’t visit archives, if they can’t get access to records in China it really stymies what they can do. And so for a professor trying to establish an academic career, being limited to that kind of research is a real blow to their career. But there’s also intimidation, and the Chinese government has a long arm. It can reach into the U.S. quite easily. And American scholars are concerned about retribution from the Chinese government if they go on record, criticizing the Confucius Institute on their campus.

But the second source of concern for them is really interesting. They were concerned about retribution from their own university, and that really shocked me that American professors did not feel like their academic freedom was protected by their university, and their administration was instead more concerned about maintaining this relationship with the Chinese government. The sources of influence that the administration has on the professors is really numerous. They can deny promotion and deny tenure. They can deny sabbaticals. And often the Confucius Institute has done a good job of ingratiating itself with the university administration. It’s often a dean who is serving as the Chairman of the Board of the Confucius Institute. It’s often a high-ranking U.S. professor serving as the Director of the Confucius Institute, paired with a co-director from China. And several said to me, “The Director of the Confucius Institute is sitting on the committee that’s going to review my promotion and tenure package. I can’t afford to lose that. I can’t go on record.” So it was really shocking to me, the kinds of risks that these professors felt like they were taking just by speaking about this Institute on their campus.

And just to give you one specific case study, one person that I spoke with was so concerned that he didn’t even want to be seen talking with me that we actually met in the basement of another building rather than in his office.

Ben Weingarten: And this is on American soil.

Rachelle Peterson: This is in Upstate New York. Yeah, he just wanted to be sure that there was no evidence that he was the one talking with me.

Ben Weingarten: One thing also that I found particularly disturbing in your report was the percentage of teachers who received their pay directly from Chinese authorities. Obviously, money is leverage, and then you have teachers being paid by Chinese authorities. Many of these teachers are Chinese nationals. They’re not American citizens, or they’re not Chinese-Americans. Who vets these teachers, and who are these teachers?

Rachelle Peterson: They’re vetted by the Chinese government. So one of the conditions of having a Confucius Institute is that China, in its generosity, it says “We’ll give you teachers and textbooks.” And the teachers are selected by the Chinese government. The Hanban maintains a database of eligible teachers. Some of them are professors at Chinese universities. Others are recent graduates of Chinese universities. And the way the hiring process works is, China selects these candidates by whatever criteria it deems relevant, we’re not totally sure what criteria are included, but is likely that some kind of ideological purity to the Chinese Communist Party is part of that. But once they have this list of eligible teachers, the American universities are given a slate of two-to-three candidates, and they pick one from those two-to-three.

So the American universities, if you ask them, will say “We get to choose who our teacher is. There’s a hiring process, we see resumes, we interview people.” But they’re selecting from a very small pool of candidates, all of whom have been screened by the Chinese government.

Ben Weingarten: Sort of like how elections work in Iran, where there is a slate of candidates, and those candidates are approved by the mullahs. So yes, you have your freedom to choose among a very narrow set of potential options. It’s staggering that on U.S. soil this is the sort of thing that we are subjecting ourselves to. So what is actually taught, based upon both the case studies that you conducted and your research…by these Confucius Institutes?

Rachelle Peterson: Anything that looks good about China gets taught at Confucius Institutes. Some of it is, there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s no falsehood. They’re teaching Chinese language. They’re teaching paper cutting. They’re teaching about Chinese tea ceremonies, and different Chinese holidays — all things that are fine to learn, not necessarily anything wrong with teaching that. But there are some things that are mishandled, and there are a lot of things that are never taught.

So you will not get a complete history of China from a Confucius Institute. Certain key episodes are mysteriously left out. I asked what would happen if a student asked Tiananmen Square, where of course the Chinese government massacred democracy demonstrators. And I got a lot of beating around the bush in terms of answers. And one director of a Confucius Institute, the Chinese Director at New Jersey City University, told me she would show a picture and point out the beautiful architecture, so students would learn that this is a gorgeous tourist sight. But they would not learn anything about what happened there.

Similarly, if you ask about Taiwan and Tibet, you’ll hear they’re “undisputed territories of China. Everyone knows that. Nothing more to talk about.”

If you ask about the persecution of Falun Gong, of Uhygurs, of Christians, of any minorities in China, you’ll hear that “Everything’s great. Human rights are getting better, and there’s really nothing to talk about there either.” So it’s a very edited version of China, and students hear only what the Chinese government wants them to hear.

Ben Weingarten: Who are the students that populate these over 100 Confucius Institutes on U.S. college campuses.

Rachelle Peterson: It’s a mix. Sometimes it’s regular college students who in some cases are taking these classes for college credit. At 30 percent of the case studies that I looked at — I had twelve case studies — the Confucius Institute was the only place where you could study Chinese language, culture, history, at that university. So for some students they’re taking these classes for credit, sometimes counting towards their degrees as core distribution requirements. Other times they’re members of the public. Confucius institutes have done a good job of trying to straddle the university world and the public world, and try to appeal to anyone in the area. So if you’re a retiree in the area trying to fill your time you can sign up for a Confucius Institute class and learn about how great China is. But sometimes there are also Chinese nationals, and that is where the Chinese government really tries to keep tabs on them and control what they’re hearing in the U.S. about China, and understand what they’re saying, what they’re thinking and report back to the Chinese government on what these students in the U.S. are saying and potentially subject them to repercussions based on what that is.

Ben Weingarten: What was the most alarming thing that you observed in conducting interviews with these various officers, and in examining the by-laws and constitutions that enable the formation of these institutes on U.S. campuses?

Rachelle Peterson: Really it was the way that American universities did not seem to have vetted these Confucius institutes at all. When I looked at the contracts that colleges had signed with the Chinese government, I was really startled by some of the language in there that seemed obviously wrong. Why would you sign this? There were prohibitions against transgressing Chinese law. There were requirements that if you tarnish the reputation of the Confucius Institute, you could be hauled into court. What does “tarnish the reputation of the Confucius Institute” mean? No one really knows, and that’s one of the tools that the Chinese government has to have, this expansive language keeping universities on their toes to not do anything offensive to the Chinese government. And then, in these contracts again it was all set up really to the benefit of China, with China providing the money, the teachers, the textbooks and often, in these contracts, China being the one that would get to evaluate the Confucius Institute, evaluate the classes and decide whether it was up to par. Those are all tasks that the university should have. If this is a class on their campus, they should be hiring the teachers. The teachers should be selecting the textbooks. The university should be conducting assessments. But most of these contracts, that was left to the Chinese government.

Ben Weingarten: And you’ve discussed the propagandistic efforts of these institutions and that, isn’t just you saying it, or a few cherrypicked examples. There’s actually a quote from 2009 from Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the parties Politburo Standing Committee and he called Confucius institutes, and I quote here, “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” You also mentioned the fact that there is, in effect, surveillance of Chinese individuals in the U.S., and of course likely Americans as well, definitionally because Americans are some of the people that populate these institutions. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, in testimony in February 2018, said that the FBI was looking into other sorts of nefarious activities, for example, potentially espionage relating to institutions like Confucius Institutes. Have you found in your study any evidence of overt, beyond surveillance, actual espionage?

Rachelle Peterson: No, I have not found actual hard evidence of espionage, though I did find a number of American professors who…felt pretty sure that there was espionage going on, though they didn’t have anything specific to point to. But you’re right that Christopher Wray, the Director of the FBI, did testify about this in February of this year, and intelligence officers in other countries including Canada and Australia have been looking at this as well. So it’s a question that bears further research, and definitely we should be looking into.

Ben Weingarten: And of course, even if there hasn’t been necessarily overt espionage efforts conducted vis-a-vis the Confucius Institutes, there’s of course the idea that potentially there could be assets recruited out of these institutes given that you have Chinese teachers approved by the Chinese Communist Party who are the ones leading this cultural exchange, “education program,” and or trying to create agents of influence effectively out of them. So it’ll bear noting, in future testimonies we’ll see if the FBI director and the intelligence community cites anything more on this matter.

Now, when you were conducting this research, and then subsequent to this research, did you find that the Chinese government itself in any way sought to threaten the National Association of Scholars or otherwise attack your work?

Rachelle Peterson: We got two responses. First, our website got hit with hackers from China the day that our report on Confucius Institutes was released. Our website withstood the hacking, we were fine, the report did go out. But that kind of put us on our toes a bit. That was the first response. The second response was a kind of charm offensive. Our president, Peter Wood, and I both got inundated with speaking invitations in China, and requests to come give keynote addresses and take luxurious all-expenses-paid trips, to China, where of course there would be no purpose besides delivering the speech, no attempts of course to co-opt us or buy our silence. So, China has launched an effort to respond.

Ben Weingarten: So the FBI Director gives testimony in part regarding Confucius Institutes, and it bears noting, this was in context of broader testimony of the broad intelligence community talking about threats to the U.S. So, it’s pretty notable that the director would bring up Confucius Institutes in the wake of your report, during that testimony. Since that point, there have been legislative efforts to grapple with the influence of Confucius Institutes on U.S. soil. So tell us a little bit about those efforts.

Rachelle Peterson: Yes, there have been several bills introduced. The first is called the Foreign Influence Transparency Act. It’s sponsored in the Senate by Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, and in the house by Joe Wilson. And this bill is an attempt to just provide the American public with more information. The U.S. public should know when foreign governments are trying to exert influence over college campuses, especially when that influence extends to the college curriculum. So this bill, which I’ve had the opportunity to work on, would require colleges to divulge more information when they get grants and contracts from foreign agents.

The second bill is called the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act. It’s sponsored by Ted Cruz. We were able to work on that a little bit with his office. And this bill has a wider scope. It looks at multiple sources of espionage and attempts to steal research and development from the United States, and it targets those sources of influence and theft, and again requires colleges to divulge more information. But it also has an extra step. It requires the FBI to create a category called “foreign Intelligence threats to higher education,” and the FBI would maintain this list of foreign intelligence threats, and any agency or group on that list from the FBI would then be subject to enhanced screening. So these are both efforts to make the American public first of all more aware of what the Chinese government and other governments are trying to do, but also try to hold colleges accountable and hold those foreign agents accountable by requiring them to share more information.

Ben Weingarten: In your studies did you find that there are other governments who are sponsoring similarly arguably subversive programs on U.S. soil?

Rachelle Peterson: There are other governments that are making similar attempts. I’m doing a project right now looking at Saudi Arabia. But the way China does it is unique. China is really the only nation that has established a wide footprint of institutes on college campuses, offering for-credit college courses, sponsored by a foreign government. That’s unique. Other nations will set up centers that are off-campus, that are not for-credit, that are purely cultural exchange centers, where if you go there, you know what you’re going to get. China has set these centers up on college campuses, and that makes them one of a kind.

Ben Weingarten: Well, when you complete your next report on Saudi Arabia, we’ll look forward to having you on again to discuss that. And Rachelle, thank you so much for putting forth this report, which is incredibly eye-opening, and I think critical when we think about the size, scope, and scale of these sorts of threats that are facing us both from China, and other foreign powers as well.

Rachelle Peterson: Thank you.

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