Confucius Institutes, like one at KU, coming under federal scrutiny

In this file photo from May 2006, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius shakes the hand of Wu Qidi, vice minister in China's Ministry of Education, while University of Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemenway applauds during opening ceremonies for the Confucius Institute at KU's Edwards Campus in Overland Park.

? An institute at the University of Kansas that teaches Chinese language and culture may soon find itself coming under political attack from officials in Washington.

In recent days, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, and FBI Director Christopher Wray have expressed concerns about the programs known as Confucius Institutes.

Promoted as educational programs that teach Chinese language and culture and promote cultural exchanges, the institutes — which number more than 100 nationwide — are coming under investigation amid concerns that they are propaganda tools of the Chinese Communist Party.

“And it is my view they’re complicit in these efforts to covertly influence public opinion and to teach half-truths designed to present Chinese history, government or official policy in the most favorable light,” Rubio said during a Feb. 13 meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, according to a transcript posted on his website.

Earlier, Rubio sent letters to four Florida universities and one Florida high school, urging them to terminate their relationships with the Confucius Institute program.

At an earlier meeting of the Intelligence Committee, Wray expressed similar concerns, and went so far as to say the institutes may also be engaged in espionage.

“They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it,” he said, according to a report by the Washington Post.

Wray also reportedly said at that meeting that the FBI is investigating some Confucius Institutes for possible espionage, but he did not identify which ones.

Both the University of Kansas and Kansas State University have Confucius Institutes on their campuses.

The KU Confucius Institute, housed at the Edwards Campus in Overland Park, was established in 2006. According to its website, it was formed in partnership with Central China Normal University.

The institute receives partial funding from the Office of Chinese Language Council, also known as Hanban. But it also receives some federal funding from the U.S. government and from outside sources.

An attempt to reach Sheree Willis, the institute’s executive director, was unsuccessful. But KU spokesman Joe Monaco told the Journal-World in a phone interview that the university has not received any questions or complaints from federal officials since the comments by Rubio and Wray.

“The Confucius Institute is managed and controlled by American professional staff of the University,” he said in a follow-up email. “All program content, curriculum, and program delivery are selected and supervised by the University of Kansas professional management staff of the Institute.”

He also said the funding from the Chinese government is not used to pay the salaries of the institute’s staff and that the Chinese government has no role in hiring or supervising that staff.

According to the institute’s website, however, the teaching faculty and visiting scholars do come from Central China Normal University.

Gary Bjorge, a Lawrence resident who is a retired professor of military history at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, said in a phone interview that he has had concerns about Confucius Institutes from the beginning.

He said the Chinese government has a keen interest in research conducted at American universities that may have commercial and economic applications.

“And that’s been a big issue with the cyber-hacking from China,” Bjorge said. “In a sense, they’re military-hacking for commercial or economic purposes.”

“The Chinese government is a totalitarian, authoritarian state,” he said. “At the center, you have strategic planning to achieve long-term strategic objectives, and all of this fits together.”

During a recent visit in Topeka, Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said he is aware of Sen. Rubio’s concerns, but he said he plans to seek more information from U.S. intelligence officials to find out if those concerns are justified.

“I think my question will be to Mike Pompeo, who is the first one I would ask about this in the intelligence community,” Roberts said, referring to the former Kansas congressman who is now the director of the CIA. “I really haven’t done any homework on what Marco is concerned about. I know he is concerned about it.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Republican whose district includes Lawrence, said she had not yet heard any concerns about Confucius Institutes either.