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China-US relations

US lawmakers seek to force Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents

The Foreign Influence Transparency Act would close loopholes in current law and require parties promoting a political agenda to register with the Department of Justice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 8:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 10:15pm

The US operations of China's Confucius Institute would be required to register with the American government as foreign agents under a draft proposal in the US Senate and House of Representatives. 

The proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Act of 2018 would require the Confucius Institute and other groups and individuals to register for status under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) if they promoted a foreign government’s political agenda. 

The bill is co-sponsored by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, both members of the Republican Party. 

“The goal of this legislation is to increase transparency between foreign governments, universities and communities,” Wilson said in a news release. 

“The American people have the right to know if they are consuming propaganda that is being produced by a foreign government.” 

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The legislation seeks to clarify the language in FARA, an 80-year-old law that was intended to counter the impact of foreign propaganda. The proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Act would limit the number of individuals and organisations that could be made exempt from FARA requirements. 

Under FARA, organisations and individuals acting on behalf of a foreign government must register with the Department of Justice and disclose their relationship to that government and funding sources. 

But “bona fide” academic and scholastic pursuits are exempt from FARA. 

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Owing to the lack of a clear definition of “bona fide”, foreign governments and organisations have been able to push their political agenda under the facade of an “academic or scholastic pursuit”, according to the release. 

The draft proposal would redefine “bona fide academic pursuit” to exclude any foreign-financed endeavour. 

“This legislation aims to bring greater transparency to the activities of foreign governments operating in the United States,” said Rubio, who introduced companion legislation on March 21. 

It would strengthen foreign funding disclosure requirements for colleges and universities and close loopholes in current law so that entities like Confucius Institute would be required to register with the Department of Justice as foreign agents of the Chinese government, he said. 

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The Confucius Institute has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years owing to the cultural organisation’s highly controlled effort to censor discussions of topics Chinese Communist Party considers sensitive.

In 2014, professors at the University of Chicago, for example, effectively closed the Institute on grounds that instructors and teaching materials limited a discussion of sensitive events such as the 1989 student uprising in Beijing. 

As of late last year, there were more than 600 Confucius Institutes or classes in the US and around 1,500 worldwide, according to a report published by the National Association of Scholars, a New York-based non-profit that advocates for free speech. The programmes are administered by Hanban, a Chinese government body. 

Lawmakers increasingly have expressed concern about the Chinese programmes. 

In February, Rubio called on schools in his state of Florida to close their Confucius Institutes. Early this month, Seth Moulton, a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, sent a letter to colleges and universities in his state, urging them to cut ties with the programmes. 

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In 2009, former top party official Li Changchun was quoted in The Economist describing the Confucius Institute as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.

Wednesday's proposal also seeks to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to clarify disclosures of foreign gifts by institutions. The legislation requires universities to disclose gifts with a value of US$50,000 or greater from any foreign source. 

“With the enactment of the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, organisations like the Confucius Institute will no longer be able to use the lack of clarity in FARA to disseminate propaganda,” Wilson said.