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Misguided Confucius Institute investigation fosters fear

The following reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.

In an era marked by rising nationalism and crumbling foreign relationships, elected officials are leaning into xenophobia for political rewards -- and Ohio's Republican senator is no exception.

The United States Senate just wrapped up an eight month investigation of the Confucius Institute, a program partially funded by the Chinese government that promotes the study of Chinese language and culture in the United States through satellite centers at universities.

Miami is one of over 100 universities in the U.S. with one of these institutes, and all receive similar contributions.

For a deeper dive into the history of the Institute and details on the investigation, read our news story.

But the gist is this: The Senate investigation, led by Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, found no wrongdoing -- espionage, financial tomfoolery, or otherwise -- on the part of the Institute. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) ran a concurrent investigation that came to the same conclusion.

At most, the resulting reports recommended that universities more transparently disclose the funding their attached Institutes receive from Hanban -- a semi-governmental agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations devoted eight months of resources to auditing an educational organization which largely conducts cultural events involving music and dancing, and teaches classes on kung fu and tai chi.

Portman cited the need for more oversight into these institutes as the reason for the probe. There were also allegations that these institutes threatened "academic freedom" by teaching a one-sided view of China and that they are being used by China for espionage.

These are serious allegations and their timing raises questions of motivation, considering the institutes have been in the U.S. for over a decade. It also seems excessive to launch both a Senate investigation and an investigation by the GAO, especially considering that the Federal Bureau of Investigation already keeps tabs on the Confucius Institute, according to testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray.

This was a politically-motivated probe and it continues to perpetuate a narrative of "us vs. them" instead of one about bridging cultural divides. Confucius Institutes are necessary on college campuses in order to support international students, and teach American students about cultures outside the United States and Europe.

Revelations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and an increase in high-profile corporate espionage cases perpetrated by the Chinese government have aggravated tensions with our old Cold War foes, but to target educational institutes designed to teach about culture and language is a blatant "Red Scare" tactic.

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While the institutes are funded by Hanban, there is no evidence that Confucius Institutes have been involved in spreading propaganda or participating in espionage. Much of the teachings and events run by these institutes are controlled by the individual universities, and Hanban only provides funding for those programs.

The Senate and the GAO could have better spent their time on more pressing issues to national security.

Thankfully, there is some value to be found in the results of the investigations -- there were some important discoveries and recommendations. It wasn't a total eight-month wash.

For example, they exposed the need for more oversight into the operations of Confucius Institutes by the State Department and Department of Education. Universities are required by the Department of Education to report their earnings from Hanban as foreign gifts if they exceed over $250,000.

They also found the State Department was not placing enough effort on ensuring that universities were meeting the proper visa requirements for Chinese directors or teachers coming to work at the institutes.

But these are the mundane potholes of foreign funding and a mammoth immigration bureaucracy -- not indicators of a large-scale espionage operation. While we certainly shouldn't ignore the very real existence of Chinese (or Russian, or any other foreign power's) spying, we must be thoughtful about who we place under the considerable public scrutiny of a process like a Senate investigation, and for what reasons we are doing so.

Interfering with an educational effort like the Confucius Institute under the guise of protecting "academic freedom" speaks volumes more about our own value of the marketplace of ideas than it does of China's.

However closed and regulated China's public forum may be on its own turf, getting caught in a tit-for-tat game of cultural gatekeeping risks us slipping back into Cold War insularity and forgoing the possibility of a truly open China.