Sen. Hawley asks universities to cut ties with Chinese program

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's junior U.S. senator is asking two Missouri universities to end their relationships with a program that allows the Chinese government to help teach language classes on American campuses but that critics say poses a threat to national security and academic freedom.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley on Wednesday wrote the top leaders at the University of Missouri and Webster University in St. Louis to ask them cut ties with the Confucius Institute.

Officials at both universities said they had no immediate plans to do so.

More than 100 U.S. colleges host Confucius Institutes through partnerships with Hanban, an affiliate of China's Ministry of Education. Hanban provides teachers and directors from China, along with textbooks and startup funding. A bipartisan report from Congress in February urged U.S. colleges and universities to sever ties with the institute, concluding that the deals give Chinese authorities too much control over programs on U.S. soil.

Hawley's letter said the institutes are part of China's effort to "spread propaganda, suppress academic freedom, and threaten the national security of the United States."

Hawley cited an incident in which North Carolina State University canceled an event with the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet amid an attempted uprising against Chinese rule nearly 60 years ago, after Confucius Institute leaders pressured university administrators. He also expressed concern about the Chinese government taking advantage of the campus presence for espionage activities.

"These Confucius Institutes are, in short, a tool for China to spread influence and exercise soft power in its rivalry with the United States," he said.

Christian Basi, spokesman for the University of Missouri, said the university takes any threat to academic freedom, free speech or espionage seriously, and will take into account all the information it has as it comes time to renew the university's contract with the institute in 2021.

Basi said there had been no indication of espionage on the part of the Chinese through the institute, but the general topic of espionage is on the university's radar. Officials have regular conversations with the FBI about what they can to prevent espionage, he said.

The institute at the university provides two free, noncredit Chinese language classes a semester open to students and the public, Basi said.

Webster President Elizabeth Stroble responded to Hawley in a letter saying she had no reason to believe the Confucius Institute at the university posed any of the threats Hawley described.