August 2, 2021 | Policy Brief

Universities Maintain Ties to Malign Chinese Entities Following Confucius Institute Closures

August 2, 2021 | Policy Brief

Universities Maintain Ties to Malign Chinese Entities Following Confucius Institute Closures

The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) announced the closure of its Confucius Institute (CI) in early July, ending the university’s 14-year involvement in a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) program aimed at promoting Beijing’s preferred political narratives. However, in a move consistent with CI closures in other states, UCA has elected to maintain a relationship with its former CI partner university in China, raising important questions for policymakers seeking to monitor China’s malign influence on college campuses.

CIs are CCP-sponsored educational organizations that offer Chinese language, culture, and history programming at the primary, secondary, and university levels. They are also a key element in China’s “United Front,” a network of groups and key individuals that seek to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the CCP’s policies and legitimacy. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that CIs “offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda, to encourage censorship, and to restrict academic freedom.”

UCA established its CI in 2007 in partnership with the East China Normal University (ECNU), which has ties to China’s defense and military establishment. These ties include links to China’s military-civil fusion (MCF) program, a national strategy aimed at acquiring the world’s cutting-edge technologies — including through theft — in order to achieve Chinese military dominance.

For example, ECNU’s Institute of Urban Development maintains a cooperative relationship with an MCF research center with ties to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology’s Yangtze River Economic Belt Joint Innovation Committee. An ECNU lab also signed an agreement to work on sensitive next-generation technologies with a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), a defense conglomerate with extensive ties to the People’s Liberation Army. The ECNU lab and the CASC subsidiary have conducted joint research, some of which has potential military applications.

In 2020, Australia revoked the visa of an ECNU professor, Chen Hong, as part of a foreign-interference investigation conducted by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the Australian Federal Police. Chen had served as the director of the university’s Australian studies center since 2001.

UCA representatives confirmed to FDD that following the closure of UCA’s CI, the university entered into an exchange agreement with ECNU along with two other Chinese entities: Xi’an Foreign Studies University and Qingdao University. UCA officials would not confirm, however, whether UCA’s new center will have any direct or indirect affiliation with China’s Centre for Language Education and Cooperation (formerly known as Hanban), the Chinese government entity responsible for overseeing the CI program.

UCA’s decision to close its CI yet maintain a relationship with ECNU mirrors similar moves by several other U.S. universities, many of which are likely eager to avoid the negative publicity that comes with hosting a CI. In some cases, these universities have established new China-focused initiatives while retaining CI staff and programs.

The University of Michigan continued to receive funding from Hanban after the university’s CI closed, according to foreign-gift disclosures. Similarly, Tufts University established a new partnership with the same Chinese university previously involved in Tufts’ shuttered CI. Professors from that entity, Beijing Normal University, have worked on China’s development of unmanned aerial vehicles as well as with MCF entities that facilitate transfers of sensitive technology between universities and Chinese industry.

In the absence of legislation that mandates the closure of all remaining CIs or requires universities to disclose contractual relationships with Chinese universities, it will be incumbent upon elected officials to publicly pressure universities to terminate relationships with entities that maintain links to China’s defense establishment. Similar campaigns have proven successful in the past, even if some universities continue to downplay the national security risks stemming from ties to China’s United Front.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Craig, the China Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy