Leading college Republicans and Democrats have teamed up to establish a non-profit to combat Chinese government influence on American campuses.
In its first official act, the Athenai Institute released a letter on Wednesday calling for the closure of Confucius institutes at U.S. colleges and universities, as well as for “full and public disclosure of all ties, both financial and academic, between centers of higher learning and all Chinese state agencies and proxies.”
The letter has been signed by the leadership of both the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America, as well as numerous human rights groups committed to protecting Uighur and Tibetan minorities from persecution in China.
“The Chinese government’s flagrant attempts to coerce and control discourse at universities in the United States and around the world pose an existential threat to academic freedom as we know it. It is a civic and moral imperative that we protect that freedom,” the letter states. “In the fight against authoritarianism, universities can continue to benefit from the largesse of an emboldened authoritarian state, or they can stand on the right side of history. They cannot do both.”
China has funded Confucius institutes at universities throughout the world, ostensibly to promote knowledge of Chinese language and culture. However, U.S. officials have warned that the institutes essentially serve as propaganda outlets.
Confucius institutes are “part of China’s soft power strategy and influence,” FBI director Christopher Wray testified in 2019. They “offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom.”
Additionally, U.S. government bodies are currently investigating illicit Chinese funding of research at American universities, as well as cases of intellectual property theft. In the latest instance to be publicized, FBI agents last Friday arrested a longtime University of Arkansas professor and NASA researcher who allegedly failed to disclose his participation in the “Thousand Talents” program, which Beijing uses to coopt American academics by funding their research. The head of the Harvard University chemistry department was also arrested in January for lying about his participation in the program.
Rory O’Connor, deputy director of human development for the College Democrats and the president of the Athenai Institute, told National Review that confronting China’s totalitarianism is “profoundly important to the left.”
“The greatest threat to human dignity is the Chinese Communist Party,” O’Connor said. “This is an entity which disregard human rights, labor rights, it cracks down on unions, [and] it cracks down on ethnic and religious minorities.”
Athenai Institute board member Caleb Max, a Republican, said that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting anger at the CCP has made Athenai’s mission more pressing. Max also emphasized that the bipartisan nature of the institute would allow members to build a broad coalition among college students.
“At the end of the day an issue like this is ‘safe’ because it’s a human rights issue.” Max said. “We believe that human rights issues cross party lines.”
Currently, there are roughly 100 Confucius institutes open on American campuses, while 25 have been closed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Republican members of the House Oversight Committee have launched an inquiry into Chinese government funding and influence at American universities.