AUSTIN — The Texas A&M University System announced Thursday that it will end its relationship with the Chinese government organization Confucius Institute after two Texas congressmen said the institute could pose a threat to national security.
Republican Michael McCaul of Austin and Democrat Henry Cuellar of Laredo, in a joint statement Thursday, strongly urged several Texas universities to end their partnerships with the institute. They cited concern that the Chinese government could influence American education and possibly gather intelligence through its presence at schools.
“These organizations are a threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda,” McCaul and Cuellar said in a news release. “We have a responsibility to uphold our American values of free expression, and to do whatever is necessary to counter any behavior that poses a threat to our democracy.”
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement that the system has great respect for McCaul and Cuellar. Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M host Confucius Institutes.
“I don’t question their judgment, nor their patriotism,” he said. “In addition, they have access to classified information we do not have. We are terminating the contract as they suggested.”
Laylan Copelin, spokesman for the A&M system, said the system had been aware and reviewing concerns about the Confucius Institute after receiving the letter from McCaul and Cuellar. A&M does not offer Chinese language courses through the institute, instead using the partnership to bring in visiting scholars to teach lessons about Chinese culture. He stressed that those scholars did not have access to the system’s classified research.
The Chinese Embassy in Houston and the Confucius Institute could not be reached Thursday.
The University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas Southern University also host Confucius Institutes. Houston ISD has a partnership with the institutes, boasting its status as the only K-12 program in Texas to do so.
UT-Dallas officials said they received the letter from McCaul and Cuellar and are reviewing issues related to the institute.
UT-San Antonio said in a prepared statement that the Confucius Institute, established at the university in 2009, is one of many programs helping students to be “world-ready.”
“It is under full control of professors and officials from UTSA,” the university said. “We value the perspectives of the congressmen and will do our due diligence in evaluating their concerns.”
Language and culture courses
Schools around the world, including in the U.S., offer Chinese language and culture courses through Confucius Institutes. The institutes are a project of Hanban, an organization under the Chinese Ministry of Education.
According to Rachelle Peterson, policy director of the National Association of Scholars who authored a 2017 reportabout Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government has unparalleled control over the classes they provide.
“No other nation enjoys such direct access to American classrooms,” Peterson said. “The level of authority is unmatched even by the federal government’s control over the content of courses. If the federal Department of Education was demanding the right to vet teachers, choose textbooks and veto courses at universities across the nation there would be an outcry, but that is exactly what the Chinese government is doing with the Confucius Institute.”
The report found that the institutes must follow official Hanban policy, and professors avoid taboo topics such as Tiananmen Square and present Tibet and Taiwan as undisputed territories of China.
Funding from the institutes also helps pay for study-abroad trips for American students, and provides teachers and free textbooks. The National Association of Scholars says it does not condemn the study-abroad opportunities, but is concerned that it could be difficult for universities to end their partnerships with the institutes without hurting other financial relationships.
McCaul and Cuellar said in a March 23 letter to Texas universities partnered with the Confucius Institute that leading universities that ended partnerships with the Chinese organization recognized the potential for stolen research and compromised academic integrity.
“This kind of malicious behavior is consistent with their history of harming American innovation and theft of our intellectual property,” the congressmen wrote.
FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged last year that the bureau was monitoring the institutes as well.
UT-Austin opts out
The University of Texas at Austin opted out of partnering with Chinese government-supported organizations when it looked for resources to fund the Chinese Public Policy Center. UT-Austin president Greg Fenves wrote to Sen. Ted Cruz in January that the university would not be accepting any funding from the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit founded by a high-ranking government official. The foundation is a separate entity from the Confucius Institutes, but Fenves mentioned the same concerns about academic integrity.
“We must, however, also ensure that the receipt of outside funding does not create potential conflicts of interest or place limits on academic freedom and the robust exchange of ideas,” Fenves wrote. “I am concerned about this if we were to accept funding from CUSEF.”
The Chinese government plans to expand its reach in schools, and aims to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes worldwide by 2020. The National Association of Scholars reported in 2017 there are 103 in the United States.
Read more at Dallas News.