The China influence puzzle

The CCP is trying to subvert our schools. Confucius Institutes are just the beginning

china ccp
Text Size
Line Spacing

A “Chinese puzzle” in its classic version is a game where you must fit a variety of ill-assorted boxes inside other boxes. The term came to mean any intricate problem, especially one in which what looks like the way forward leads only to new obstacles.  

These days, in which we are warned not to use ethnonyms for fear of giving offense, it might be safer to say something like “brainteaser.” But the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to manipulate American society genuinely deserve the old term.

The news this past week adds a few…

A “Chinese puzzle” in its classic version is a game where you must fit a variety of ill-assorted boxes inside other boxes. The term came to mean any intricate problem, especially one in which what looks like the way forward leads only to new obstacles.  

These days, in which we are warned not to use ethnonyms for fear of giving offense, it might be safer to say something like “brainteaser.” But the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to manipulate American society genuinely deserve the old term.

The news this past week adds a few curious details to those efforts. Details first; explanations to follow.

  • Professor Charles Lieber, former chairman of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, had been facing a possible sentence of twenty-six years in federal prison for actions related to his involvement with a CCP program. A federal jury found him guilty on all felony charges, but the prosecution oddly reduced its recommendation to ninety days. On April 26, Judge Rya W. Zobel handed down a sentence of two days in prison
  • According to the New York Times, at the beginning of 2022, the FBI had more than 2,000 open investigations dealing with Chinese theft of US information and technology. The Biden administration promptly shut them all down
  • The Department of Defense announced in March that it would grant waivers to colleges that wish to host Chinese influence operations. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibited the disbursement of federal defense dollars to all colleges that host these Chinese operations. The new rule essentially voids the law
  • A bill has been introduced in Congress, the “Transparency in College Foreign Payments Act,” that would require the disclosure by universities of the name of the foreign government and its agency that provides funding to and the name of specific campus recipients of this funding. The key person in the House is Congressman Jim Banks who serves on the new House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the US and the Chinese Communist Party

What’s going on? Let me back up several steps.

I have spent a good portion of my professional life over the last decade trying to solve the Chinese puzzle of “Confucius Institutes.” If you are new to this game, Confucius Institutes, or CIs, are an instrument of the CCP for infiltrating colleges and universities in the United States and other countries. They supposedly teach students how to speak Mandarin and introduce Chinese art and culture to curious Westerners. Outwardly CIs seem benign and innocent, but there is much more to them. They are avenues by which agents of the CCP gain access to American intellectual property, recruit American academics, propagandize American students, surveil overseas Chinese students, and assist other Chinese influence operations on and off campus. They cannot be understood in isolation from numerous other Chinese operations, including the “Thousand Talents Program” through which China paid Harvard’s Professor Lieber $50,000 per month to hand over American taxpayer-funded research.

Think of the CIs as the little red boxes designed to fit into the larger black boxes of the American college curriculum. The name “Confucius” might suggest that these boxes have something to do with the ancient Chinese philosopher, but he is merely camouflage. Confucius Institutes have as much to do with Confucius as the Washington Post has to do with George.  

I first heard of CIs in 2015, when a professor at a Midwestern university called me to ask about them. The president of his university had announced that a CI was opening on his campus and he wondered if I knew what they were. I didn’t, but I asked a member of my staff, Rachelle Peterson, to look into them. Rachelle is a force to reckon with in this story. She was at the time a recent college graduate with an unassuming manner and a quiet demeanor, but utterly fearless. She began going to campuses that hosted CIs and asking straightforward questions that ought to have had simple answers.  

We published the results of Rachelle’s inquiries in 2017 in a report titled “Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education.” Actually, we published only some of the results. We learned a lot more than we could prove because so many of our contacts refused to speak on the record for fear of their own safety and that of their relatives. Rachelle’s report initially attracted attention mainly in the American-Chinese community, but within about six months it was taken up by the State Department, the FBI and then a collection of congressmen and senators.  

One outcome of this was the amendment that Senator Ted Cruz succeeded in making to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to “prohibit DoD from funding Confucius Institutes.” This led almost immediately to several universities closing their CIs. Other congressmen and senators also pressured universities in their states to close their CIs, and many did.

The Hanban, the Chinese agency charged with spreading overseas propaganda, initially resisted. A high point came in April 2018, when the Hanban paraded a bunch of captive US college presidents at the National Press Club to have them declare on cue that Confucius Institutes are a wonderful expression of cultural exchange. The phoniness of the event and the humiliation of the university presidents acting as trained seals was too much and soon thereafter the Hanban shifted tactics. It changed its name to the Ministry of Education Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation and many of the 118 Confucius Institutes made loud pronouncements that they were closing.

The American press generally believed these pronouncements, but Rachelle didn’t. She went on to write (this time with help from two other NAS staff) a second report titled “After Confucius Institutes: China’s Enduring Influence on American Higher Education.” This time we traced the name changes, the building reassignments, and the numerous other subterfuges by which the CCP sustained its espionage and infiltration rooted in American higher education.  

When we started down this path in 2015, we were pretty much all alone. Confucius Institutes weren’t attracting any more attention than the Alliance Française or the Goethe Institut — genuine instances of cultural exchange. But over time it became clear that China was pursuing a very different game. It is a game that has boxes far beyond campus. Some of them float overhead as high-tech “weather balloons.” Some are underfoot as US farmland, incidentally adjacent to US military installations. Some are in-hand as TikTok videos. Some are robustly present in US capital markets. Some are in downtown office buildings that serve as actual outposts of PRC police. Some of those boxes are underground and hold the corpses of the 106,000 Americans who died last year of Chinese-produced fentanyl.  

I am pleased that an increasing number of foundations and think tanks have taken up the challenge, and other researchers have begun to synthesize the larger story. The Heritage Foundation last year called a summit of the leaders of many of these groups and we formed a working group to coordinate strategy. I’d mention names, but I suspect that’s premature.  

Rachelle, alas, has retired from the field, but her successor at NAS, Ian Oxnevad, is carrying the work forward. Our project at the moment is the CCP’s program that targets K-12 schools. It is called “Confucius Classrooms,” and it is even stealthier than Confucius Institutes. We don’t know exactly what it is doing, since K-12 classrooms are not places to pick up unguarded intellectual property. Presumably the Hanban’s successor agency isn’t collecting lunchboxes. It may be targeting schools that are feeders to our nation’s top scientific and technical universities.  

I harbor the suspicion that it is also working hard to advance climate hysteria among children. China itself has about 1,200 coal-fired power plants, in contrast to 224 in the US, and China is opening new ones at the pace of two per week. Moreover, US “alternative energy” in the form of wind and solar is crucially dependent on minerals exported from China. Stoking American fears of carbon-based energy, then, is strongly in China’s interest, and what better way to do this than to promote the lesson in American schools?  

But this is speculation. With the help of an “Innovation Prize” grant from the Heritage Foundation, we are about to find out whether that is part of what the CCP is up to in our schools. 

Let me not veer into excessive optimism. China has had a long run of virtually unimpeded opportunity to buy influence, build “relationships,” acquire access and entangle naive Americans in what looked at first to be perfectly legitimate collaborations. We have a president who looks remarkably like a puppet of Xi Jinping. The CCP has used its time-honored tactic of paying the relatives of politicians it targets for control.  

The CCP has also studied and understands our culture. I imagine it looks at the points with which I began this article and thinks something like this:

  • Poor Professor Lieber, who has cancer, has suffered enough. Two days in jail will suffice
  • Those 2,000-some investigations? Since many of the operatives were of Chinese descent, that was straight-up racism on the part of the FBI. Better to close that door
  • The Defense Department can trust American universities to protect academic freedom and national security. Forcing out Confucius Institutes was short-sighted and mean
  • And that bill introduced by Republicans in the House that would force “transparency” in foreign donations? Don’t worry, it won’t pass the Senate, and even if it did, the CCP has hundreds of other ways to get money to the people and the institutions it seeks to control. Congressman Banks is an annoyance but not a serious problem

I hope and trust that, if the CCP is thinking anything like this, it is mistaken. Americans may be slow to awaken to the designs of our adversaries, but when we are roused, we know what to do. Yes, we currently face the obstacle of a president who is way too friendly towards Chinese interests and way too complacent about CCP subversion. But we will get past that.  

I entered this fray because I am an advocate for restoring the integrity of American higher education. That’s a big lift even without the weight of the CCP sitting on top. But as it happens, the CCP is involved in nearly every misdirection of contemporary American education, including DEI and the withering of intellectual freedom. Those are topics for another time. The boxes in the Chinese puzzle are never easy to fit together, but if you keep the bigger picture in mind, you can solve it. The CCP knows that its path to world dominance depends on reducing the US to dependency, and the path to that is through the American college campus.