Your local Chinese language school might have to register as a foreign agent.
Your Chinese teacher may have to register as a ‘foreign agent’
A draft proposal in the US Senate and House of Representatives would require foreign-backed academic organizations to register with the US government.
The proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Act was introduced by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Arkansas Senator Joe Cotton, and South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, all Republicans.
The specific target? China’s government-funded Confucius Institute cultural centers.
The Confucius Institute is a non-profit educational organization with the stated aim of promoting Chinese language and culture, supporting Chinese language teaching and enabling cultural exchange.
Its centers partner with schools, colleges and universities, providing funding particularly for Chinese-language classes. There are more than 600 Confucius Institutes or classes in the US alone and around 1,500 worldwide.
But the organization has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years due to its handling of topics the Chinese Communist Party considers sensitive.
In 2014, professors at the University of Chicago effectively closed its branch of the Confucius Institute on the grounds that its instructors and teaching materials limited discussion of events such as the 1989 student uprising in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
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.”
Rubio said his proposed legislation would “close loopholes in current law so that entities like Confucius Institutes… would be required to register with the Department of Justice as foreign agents of the Chinese government.”
The lawmakers are seeking to clarify the language of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law passed in 1938 to counter the impact of foreign propaganda.
Under the act, organizations 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.
In practice, according to the lawmakers, this means that foreign governments and organizations have been able to push their political agenda under the facade of academia.
Their proposal seeks to amend the act to prevent any religious, academic or scientific pursuits which “promote the political agenda of a government of a foreign country.”
It would also amend the 1965 Higher Education Act to require institutions to disclose if they are owned or controlled by a foreign source, or if they receive grants worth $50,000 or more from a foreign source.
“The goal of this legislation is to increase transparency between foreign governments, universities and communities,” Wilson said.
“The American people have the right to know if they are consuming propaganda that is being produced by a foreign government.”
In February, Rubio called on schools in his state of Florida to close their Confucius Institutes. On the other side of the political aisle, Democratic Massachusetts representative Seth Moulton sent a letter earlier this month to colleges and universities in his state, urging them to cut ties with the programs.