Today, a House Committee will hold a hearing on the subject, “Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on U.S. Universities?” China’s aggressive promotion of its primary public diplomacy program in North America has recently captured headlines as U.S. and Canadian academics have begun to push back against what is felt to be undue influence from Beijing.

The hearing has been called by Republican Rep. Chris Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. It will take place at 1 pm in the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172.

The hearing follows recent decisions by the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University here in the U.S. and institutions in Canada to end their contracts with Hanban, the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, which funds the Confucius Institute program through China’s Ministry of Public Education.

Confucius Institutes first came under congressional scrutiny in 2010 when, during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then-Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., asked then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about China’s ability to open Confucius Institutes or classrooms in the United whereas the United States has few centers in China to promote American culture.

Clinton responded: “On the Confucius centers, the Chinese government provides each center with a million dollars to launch, plus they cover operating expenses that exceed $200,000 per year. We don’t have that kind of money in the budget.” From an official of the government of the largest economy in the world, this was a startling admission.

Among the questions the Committee should investigate are:

  • Does the staff of Confucius Institutes receive directions from the Chinese Ministry of Public Education?
  • Are staff members sent from China bona fide academics, or something else?
  • Do they interfere with campus activities?
  • Are certain political topics placed off limits by the Chinese sponsors?
  • Do course offerings have to be vetted by Beijing?
  • Is U.S. staff vetted for affiliation with organizations like Falun Gong, who are persecuted in China?
  • What is the actual benefit of having a Confucius Institute on campus, as opposed to Chinese language offerings with an Asian Studies program?
  • Is the U.S. Department of State making an attempt to produce any kind of parity, placing America Centers at Chinese universities?
  • Does Hanban actually report to the Chinese Ministry of Public education or the Politburo?

China has long had a free ride advancing its public diplomacy agenda and taking advantage of the Constitutional freedoms of the United States and other Western democracies. The Chinese Communist system sets limits for the influence of foreign ideas in China. The hearing tomorrow may be an important step in exposing and addressing that unfair imbalance.