Utah lawmaker wants to close Confucius institutes in Utah, citing espionage concerns

Shi Jian, Vice President of Sichuan University in
Chengdu, China, and Michael Young, then-president of the University
of Utah, sign the agreement founding the Confucius Institute at
Utah on the Salt Lake City campus in 2007.

(Liz Martin, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A resolution is making its way through the Utah Legislature to encourage closure of all Confucius institutes on university campuses due to national concerns over China's efforts to conduct espionage through those Chinese language learning centers.

The House Government Operations Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to advance HJR8, forwarding it to the full Utah House for consideration.

"I really think it's essential for students on Utah's campuses to have access to language and cultural offerings free from the manipulation of the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies," the resolution's sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, told the committee.

Since 2004, Confucius institutes have been established at universities in the U.S. to offer Mandarin language and Chinese cultural classes. But in recent years, the institutes have garnered national concerns and warnings from the FBI that China aimed to conduct "espionage" through them.

Two Confucius institutes exist in Utah: at the University of Utah and at Southern Utah University. The U. is already in the process of shutting its program down, and SUU is open to closing its down as well, Pierucci said.

In August last year, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute United States Center, which is the headquarters of the Confucius Institute network, as "a foreign mission of the People's Republic of China and has stated that Confucius institutes 'push out skewed Chinese language and cultural training for United States students as part of Beijing's multifaceted propaganda efforts,'" the resolution states.

"They sanitize Chinese history," Pierucci said. "Which is clearly a problem."

She noted the National Association of Scholars has stated that Confucius institutes "avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses, portray Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and educate a generation of American students with selective knowledge of a major country."

Confucius institutes have become a focal point for the FBI, the intelligence community and the U.S. Congress in recent years because China is waging a massive espionage campaign in the U.S. in particular as well as against our allies.

–Megan Reiss, national security policy adviser for Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah

Since 2014, 45 U.S. universities in 30 states have already closed their Confucius institutes, Pierucci said.

If approved by the full Legislature, the resolution would request universities with a Confucius institute disclose to lawmakers the contract for the institute and any efforts by the institute to influence events related to issues that may be deemed sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, such as events related to Taiwan, the Uighur minority, Hong Kong, Tibet, or repression of other ethnic and religious minorities.

Megan Reiss, national security policy adviser for Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, urged lawmakers to support the resolution.

"Confucius institutes have become a focal point for the FBI, the intelligence community and the U.S. Congress in recent years because China is waging a massive espionage campaign in the U.S. in particular as well as against our allies," Reiss said. "And the most significant targets of this campaign are the U.S. government, especially the defense sector, technology companies, but also U.S. universities."

Reiss said Confucius institutes have become "particularly concerning as China ramps up its nefarious activities that are absolutely antithetical to U.S. national interests," such as China's significant military buildup, China's President Xi Jinping's efforts to unify China through the creation of concentration camps, pressure to end Hong Kong's democracy and using force against India.

They sanitize Chinese history, which is clearly a problem.

–Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, resolution's sponsor

"All of these are things that are very problematic to U.S. interests, so we see Confucius institutes within this broader strategic context, and has led us to question why the (Chinese Communist Party) is willing to funnel money into U.S. institutions," Reiss said, using the "known propaganda arm" of the party, the Hanban.

Reiss noted that the teachers that are contracted for the Confucius institutes are mandated to follow Chinese law.

"We're also worried about academic freedom," she said. "Part of the Hanban contracts is protecting Chinese interests, and this means squelching dissent, squelching criticism of China, squelching criticism of President Xi."

She said it's been reported that some campuses have experienced a "broader pressure" to not invite the Dalai Lama to campus, and not support Taiwan on campus.

"We want to be able to protect students," Reiss said, adding that those students who participate in these programs and want to pursue foreign policy or national security jobs may interfere with their ability to gain security clearance.

If approved by the Legislature, the resolution would "strongly" encourage Utah universities with Confucius institutes to close them before Dec. 1, 2022. It would also discourage Utah universities from pursuing relationships with the Chinese Communist Party or opening Confucius institutes.

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