Let’s begin 2021 with some potentially happy news from a place that hasn’t generated a lot of happy news of late: The University of Idaho. The school is closing a program on campus that is funded by Communist China.
The program is called the Confucius Institute and it is one of hundreds of similar institutes located on university campuses in the U.S. and around the world. Foreign policy and national security watchdogs have long worried that China uses the institutes as a way to leverage support and silence dissent by concealing the nation’s oppressive history, a fact that the school downplayed when I asked about it a year ago. At the time, a school spokesman said that the institute merely supplies Idaho students and locals with lessons about Chinese culture including language, martial arts, table tennis, and cooking.
In August, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the institutes advance “Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms.” The State Department said it would require the institutes to register as foreign agents.
None of that is mentioned in the university’s Dec. 18 letter to the institute’s handlers. University General Counsel Jim Craig wrote instead that “the University has determined that maintaining a Confucius Institute is no longer in the best interests of the University of Idaho.”
Craig said the university would end its contract for the Confucius Institute May 31. It’s worth noting that the website for the University of Idaho’s Confucius Institute has been taken down, but the institute’s office remains in the university’s administration building.
Other schools across the country have also taken steps to disassociate with the Communist Chinese government. The University of Arizona shuttered its Confucius Institute in July. With the ending of the University of Idaho’s Confucius Institute, the only remaining Idaho installation is the one at the privately-operated Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa.
To be clear, I’m always very skeptical when a government agency takes any action, and I am somewhat in this case as well. Craig goes on to say in his letter that the university is looking to “institute a broader Asian Studies Center. Through this new center, we hope to include many of the same aspects of the Confucius Institute that will allow us to meet our common goals of promoting cross-cultural learning; the support of Chinese language education; and people-to-people exchanges.”
It remains to be seen if that means the program will remain devoid of interference and involvement of the Chinese Communist government. I hope that the University of Idaho isn’t just trying to find a way to rebrand the Confucius Institute into something that sounds less controversial as to avoid a confrontation over the matter with federal regulators or with state legislators. (Two state lawmakers have told me they were considering bills to limit the school’s ability to contract with China’s communist government.) The Confucius Institutes themselves are undergoing a makeover, with Communist China attempting to make it appear as if there’s an arm’s length between the government and its educational outreach efforts, although foreign policy experts are skeptical about whether it's more or less lipstick on a pig.
As much as I would like for the University of Idaho to be straightforward about this program—it was wrong to contract with the Chinese Communist government and take its money to run an institute on the campus of the University of Idaho—the end result is most important. For now, we’ll chalk this up as a victory and compliment the University of Idaho for doing the right thing by, at long last, parting ways with an oppressive foreign government that was using the school as a beachhead for its propaganda campaign.