In a surprise from what has otherwise been a soft-on-China President Joe Biden, his nominee for CIA director last week outlined the dangers to the United States from its Asian adversary, and called for the closures of educational centers at American universities that are funded and controlled by the communist government.
The strong comments came from William Burns, a former diplomat to Russia who testified in his confirmation hearing that he considered the presence of Confucius Institutes – which remain at several dozen U.S. colleges and in a few K-12 classrooms – a threat to the country.
“I think what the Confucius Institutes do, and I’m no expert on them, is to promote a narrative of Xi Jinping’s China, which is designed to build sympathy for what is, in my view, a quite aggressive leadership, which is engaged in conduct and conducted an adversarial approach to relations with the United States,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
The remarks were a stark contrast to positions Biden has taken in the past, saying China is “not competition” and “they’re not bad folks” less than two years ago.
“China’s going to eat our lunch?” he said in May 2019, referring to a common refrain from former President Donald Trump. “Come on, man.”
And Burns’s comments seemed to contradict a decision Biden made in early February to rescind a proposed rule, issued toward the end of the Trump administration, to erase requirements for U.S. schools to disclose their ties to China-funded or –controlled organizations on their campuses – namely, the Confucius Institutes.
Biden’s move against transparency is a reminder that questions still linger about whether he and his family – most prominently his son, Hunter – have undisclosed financial stakes and relationships with Chinese entities that they are trying to protect, as blockbuster reports based on information gleaned from an abandoned laptop computer revealed in the waning days of last year’s presidential campaign.
Regardless, Burns’s observations sounded more like they came from a Trump nominee rather than Biden’s.
“That particular dimension of foreign influence operations constitutes a genuine risk,” he told the committee, referring to the institutes. “And so my advice for any institutions in the United States, including academic institutions, is to be extraordinarily careful of what the motives are for a variety of institutions like that and to be very careful in engaging them.”
Burns’s comments echoed a letter issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in October to American schools and universities, warning that the Confucius programs are a “real and growing threat” to students.
“Styled as a language and culture program, Confucius Classrooms are in reality an important element of the PRC’s global influence campaign, now reaching tens of thousands of U.S. schoolchildren every day…,” they wrote.
The former Trump cabinet officials explained how the programs neglect, and even suppress discussion about, China’s brutal human rights violations against Hong Kongers, the Uighurs, Tibet, Christians, and others the communist government deems a threat to its power.
“The presence of an authoritarian slant in curriculum and teaching has never been more concerning, nor more consequential,” Pompeo and Devos wrote.
Increasingly members of Congress – mostly Republicans – have introduced legislation and sought accountability over China’s business activities and interference in U.S. affairs, including through the Confucius Institutes. Shortly after Biden dropped the Trump rule, top House Republicans led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter urging him to reconsider. And four Republican Senators – Marco Rubio of Florida, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Charles Grassley of Iowa – waged a similar effort.
Last month House Democrats blocked an amendment to the COVID relief bill by Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, which would have eliminated federal funding for institutions that partner with Confucius Institutes. She introduced standalone legislation last week that would accomplish the same goal.
And resistance to the communist Chinese is now trickling down to the state level. Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama sent a letter and a Senate report to all his state’s legislators “detailing the Communist Chinese Party’s nefarious attempts to subvert America’s interests by infiltrating our education system.”
“I hope Alabama legislators will heed the warnings…as they consider closing Communist Chinese Party Confucius Institutes at Alabama universities,” Brooks said in a statement. “The Biden Administration has inexplicably rolled back sensible Trump policies to fight back against Communist Chinese Party influence on American campuses. States like Alabama, that realize the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party, must now take the lead in the fight against Chinese influence.”
The pressure campaign has been working, as several institutes have closed in recent years. Two weeks ago the University of South Carolina announced it would close its Confucius Institute, at the urging of all the state’s six Republican House members.
It’s not just elected Republicans and the CIA nominee who see China as a serious threat. Even Biden’s new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, confirmed an assessment by Pompeo that China was engaged in genocide against the Uighurs.
“My judgment remains that genocide was committed against – against the Uighurs and that – that hasn’t changed,” Blinken said at a press conference in January.
Asked during his testimony by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine whether he would recommend schools shut down their Confucius Institutes, Burns replied, “If I were president of a college or university and had a Confucius Institute, that’s certainly what I would do.”
Biden and his administration obviously won’t respond to Republican pleas because of political reasons. But why won’t he listen to his own foreign policy experts?