A new draft proposal in the House of Representatives seeks to require China’s cultural outposts in the United States, the Confucius Institutes, to register as foreign agents.
The effort, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), targets any foreign funding at U.S. universities that aims to promote the agenda of a foreign government.
The draft bill does not single out Confucius Institutes by name, but according to Wilson it will apply to the Chinese government-run programs, which offer language and culture classes on more than 100 American college and university campuses. The institutes have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months due to their sometimes heavy-handed attempts to censor discussion of topics that the Chinese Communist Party deems off-limits, leading to growing concerns about academic freedom.
Wilson’s initiative would clarify language in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a Nazi-era law intended to combat foreign propaganda. FARA requires organizations and individuals engaged in lobbying or public discourse on behalf of a foreign government to register with the Department of Justice, and to disclose their funding and the scope of their activities. FARA does not prohibit such funding or activities but rather seeks to provide transparency about the true source of the messaging.
As currently written, FARA includes an exemption for “bona fide” academic and scholastic pursuits, but what is meant by “bona fide” is not clearly spelled out. The draft proposal would redefine what is meant by a bona fide academic pursuit to exclude any foreign-funded endeavor that promotes the agenda of a foreign government. If enacted, the legislation would, in turn, trigger mandatory registration for the institutes, though it would not interfere with their activities.
As some have noted, think tanks and universities often look to FARA's academic exemption to avoid registration.