There are fresh concerns that the Chinese state may be using educational funding to influence a number of academic institutions across the United States, after the issue was the subject of a House committee hearing on Tuesday.
Stakeholders and Republican lawmakers have expressed fears that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was using its Confucius Institutes program—which purports to promote Chinese language and culture, but has been accused of posing a threat to national security—to exert soft power over American schools.
According to a report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) in June, there were just 10 Confucius Institutes in the U.S.—down from an estimated 120 in 2020—two located in California, two in Utah, and further institutes in Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Washington state. One of them was at St. Cloud State University, which it said had paused the program while it conducted a review.
Many Confucius Institutes shut down after being described by the Trump administration as entities “advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign.”
The NAS said that “many once-defunct Confucius Institutes had reopened under new names,” including at least 28 academic institutions that had replaced them with a similar program, and at least 58 that “have maintained close relationships with their former Confucius Institute partner.”
Confucius Institutes are predominantly tied to higher education institutions such as universities and colleges—of the 10 still going, seven are based out of universities. But some of the Chinese-funded bodies are tied to school districts, and have also been running distinct Confucius Classroom programs targeted at K-12 schools.
According to a 2022 report by NAS, Confucius Classrooms are “a smaller version” of the institutes, which teach Chinese language, but also subjects “like history or economics that the Chinese government may have a special interest in.”
It said that though a majority of the Confucius Institutes had been closed down, Confucius Classrooms “frequently survive the closure of their sponsoring [Confucius Institute].”
In late July, the Parents Defending Education (PDE) grassroots organization released a report in which it claimed that through the Confucius Classrooms initiative over $17 million had been disbursed to 143 school districts across 34 states and the District of Columbia in the past decade.
It suggested this had impacted 182 schools, some of which were identified as being near 20 U.S. military bases. Some of these programs date back several years, and it is unclear if the agreements that created them are still in effect for all of them.
Schools near military installations include the Sunrise Drive Elementary School, part of the Catalina Foothills School District in Arizona and around 10 miles from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which announced a Confucius Classrooms program for K-5 students in 2013.
The school district still lists the program on its website, but suggested it had ended in July 2020 upon the closure of the Confucius Institute based out of the University of Arizona.
PDE also referenced Hardin County School District, of which East Hardin Middle School is around 15.5 miles from the military base at Fort Knox. A decision paper from March 2016 said that the cost of the program to the district, which would see one teacher travel from China, would be around $14,900 a year, while it was applying for a $10,000 grant from the Confucius Institute at Western Kentucky University, which has since shut down.
Local paper The News-Enterprise reported in 2019 that the program was likely to cease after Western Kentucky University opted to end its agreement with the Confucius Institute, and it remains unclear whether the program was ever restarted.
Newsweek approached the Catalina Foothills School District and East Hardin Middle School via email for comment on Thursday.
In one case, PDE claimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia “received more than $1 million in financial aid from Chinese government-affiliated entities over the course of a decade.” The school hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment sent by Newsweek on Wednesday.
Among the Confucius Institutes still active in the U.S., Simpson County School District in Kentucky was as of July 2019 hosting the Confucius Institute, formerly under the auspices of the Western Kentucky University, according to a press release.
Meanwhile, NAS also said that the Confucius Institute that was part of the Davis School District in Utah was still active. While the district was named by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley in 2020, its website currently makes no mention of a Confucius Institute.
Newsweek approached the school districts in Simpson County and Davis County via email for comment on Thursday.
During Tuesday’s House hearing, Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, alleged that the Confucius Classrooms program sought to “undermine” the U.S., and called on Congress to “pass a law to ban schools from accepting money from hostile foreign governments.”
While Republican lawmakers appeared to largely agree with the testimony—the GOP House Committee Chair Aaron Bean arguing “CCP influence is rampant in American classrooms”—Democrats questioned whether Chinese institutions were being unduly targeted with criticism.
The Chinese International Education Foundation, which operates the Confucius Institutes, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs have yet to respond to requests for comment on these claims sent via email on Wednesday.