How the Chinese regime targets professors and schools to censor and indoctrinate worldwide

Editor’s Note: This is the third piece in a six-part series by J. Michael Waller on Beijing’s global network of Confucius Institutes.

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 Bratislava 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]


J. Michael Waller

Senior Analyst for Strategy

EDITORS NOTE: This Center for Security Policy column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

Source notes

[42] Rachelle Peterson, “The Confucius Institutes.”

[43] Peterson, “The Confucius Institutes.”

[44] Charon and Vilmer, 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 by Charon and Vilmer, p. 305.

[46] Charon and Vilmer, p. 305.

[47] Charon and Vilmer, p. 302.

[48] Kelsey Munro, “Behind Confucius Classrooms: The Chinese Government Agency Teaching NSW School Students,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 29, 2016, quoted by Charon and Vilmer, 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.

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