In an unusual intervention, U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, are pressing four Texas universities — Texas A&M University, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas Southern University — to cut ties with Chinese government-supported academic organizations.
McCaul and Cuellar said in a joint statement Thursday: “We strongly urge these universities to consider terminating their partnerships with Confucius Institutes and other Chinese government supported organizations. These organizations are a threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda. 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.”
Confucius Institutes are learning centers for Chinese language and culture, and they host Chinese students and faculty. But critics say they are propaganda arms of the Chinese Communist Party, distort Chinese history and try to suppress dissent. Their rapid growth — more than 100 have opened in the U.S. since the first one in 2004 — and activities have come under intense scrutiny from the FBI.
In a letter to the Texas universities dated March 23, McCaul, who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Cuellar, who is the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said they had “deep concerns of Chinese government influence on your campus.”
The Confucius Institutes and other academic organizations supported by the Chinese government “are intended to spread China’s political agenda, suppress academic debate, and steal vital academic research,” the letter continued.
UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves in January rejected funding for a new China Policy Center at the LBJ School of Public Affairs after a university investigation of the foundation supporting the center determined it had ties to the Chinese Communist Party. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had warned that accepting money from the China-United States Exchange Foundation could facilitate China’s propaganda efforts and impair the university’s credibility.
In testimony in February before the Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said there was “a level of naivete on the part of the academic sector” about Chinese exploitation of research overall.
“We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes,” Wray said. “We’ve been watching that development for a while. It’s just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program, but it is something that we’re watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps.”
There was no indication from the four Texas universities on Thursday that officials were rushing to cut ties to the Chinese institutes.
UT-San Antonio chief communications officer Joe Izbrand said, “The Confucius Institute at UTSA was established in 2009 to promote Chinese language training, lectures and workshops, and Chinese cultures and arts. The institute is one of many programs that help prepare our students to be world-ready. It is under full control of professors and officials from UTSA. We value the perspectives of the congressmen and will do our due diligence in evaluating their concerns.”
John Walls, UT-Dallas vice president of communications, said in a statement, “The university has received a letter expressing concerns about the Confucius Institute from U.S. Representatives McCaul and Cuellar. We are currently reviewing all issues related to the Confucius Institute.”
Texas A&M spokesman Keith Randall declined to comment.