Idaho colleges naive about their relationships with communist China

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The University of Idaho and Northwest Nazarene University maintain Communist-controlled programs on their campuses amid international concern that China uses them as a devious way to leverage support and silence dissent around the world.

The programs are called Confucius Institutes, which critics say package outreach so meticulously as to paint China positively while concealing the nation’s oppressive history. U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, a U of I graduate and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said via an email statement, he has “serious concerns” about the institutes in the United States “including those at Idaho universities.”

The FBI warned Congress last year that China had placed operatives at Confucius Institutes under the guise of offering language and cultural outreach classes, abetted by a “level of naivete on the part of the academic sector” regarding what was really occurring under their noses. European officials have made similar declarations about China using universities around the world as propaganda beachheads.

Both the University of Idaho and Northwest Nazarene University downplay China’s Idaho operations as innocuous. The universities maintain the Confucius Institutes merely supply students and locals with lessons that include Mandarin, martial arts, table tennis, and cooking, representatives of the universities assert. 

However, separate federal investigations have found that since 2006, China’s government has pumped $158 million into about 100 Confucius Institutes at American colleges, where the agenda is carefully controlled. A Senate subcommittee report, released this year, noted: 

“The Chinese government approves all teachers, events, and speakers. Some U.S. schools contractually agree that both Chinese and U.S. laws will apply. The Chinese teachers sign contracts with the Chinese government pledging they will not damage the national interests of China. Such limitations attempt to export China’s censorship of political debate and prevent discussion of potentially politically sensitive topics” including the independence of Taiwan or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

In his email statement, Risch said, “In recent years, the United States has come to understand the myriad ways China is implicitly and explicitly exerting its influence throughout American society and higher education institutions. I’m strongly in favor of cultural exchanges and believe they are of great benefit. However, as our intelligence community and [FBI] have repeatedly warned, Confucius Institutes are being used for non-traditional intelligence collection and influence operations.”

The University of Idaho’s Confucius Institute includes “eight faculty from China who teach in Idaho public schools or on the U of I campus,” said U of I communications director Jodi Walker. 

Walker said the University of Idaho pays the salaries and benefits of two institute employees, which totals about $111,000. The rest of the Confucius Institute’s funding comes from Hanban, the Chinese government’s education ministry, which “pays for salaries, transportation and housing for all faculty and the Chinese co-director, as well as provides programming support.”

Northwest Nazarene University, a private school in Nampa, says its Confucius Institute works with area K-12 students, organizations, and government agencies “to facilitate mutual understanding between Chinese and American people.” Mark Cork, a university spokesman, contends the critiques of China’s institutes are not applicable to his school.  

“Our experience here does not match the concerns” expressed elsewhere, Cork said. “We have had very positive interactions and experiences with the whole Confucius organization.” He added, “we are in complete control of curriculum decisions” and hiring. 

Even if you’re a skeptic of government reports, as I am, it’s obvious there has emerged a troubling pattern that has drawn international attention and is deserving of thoughtful consideration. It seems likely that Idaho academia is being gullible when it comes to China’s interest in our college campuses, public schools, and communities. 

China isn’t pouring money into its Confucius Institutes to improve the quality of our recipes for Peking duck, or to help us with our backhand drive. And if the reports are correct, it’s outlandish to think that Idaho is an exception to China’s powerplay. Our entire country may be a target of a foreign power’s strategic campaign that allows unfettered access to impressionable young minds, including those in Idaho, to build support for the communist regime. 

That is, for as long as we’re dumb enough to allow it.