Feb 24, 2021, By Alex Gault
WASHINGTON — Rep. Elise M. Stefanik on Tuesday introduced a bill that would limit Chinese government involvement in American universities, and added her name to another bill that would impose sanctions on any companies affiliated with or operated by the Chinese military.
It’s just the latest in a long line of anti-China actions taken by Rep. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who has said the country is “the key challenge of the 21st century” for the United States.
“These bills come in a broader context of my very strong record as being one of the strongest members legislatively countering China,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
The bill written and introduced by Rep. Stefanik on Tuesday is the “End College Chinese Communist Partnerships Act,” and would block any higher education institution from receiving institutional federal funding if it has a contractual partnership with any entity owned or controlled by the Chinese government.
While students who attend the university would still be able to receive federal grants to pay for tuition, the universities themselves would receive no federal funding directly.
“Colleges are going to have a choice,” Rep. Stefanik said. “Do they want to prioritize the Chinese Communist Party or do they want to prioritize American students? For every college and university in this country, that should be an easy choice.”
The main focus of the bill is to put an end to the Confucius Institutes, which are Chinese-government funded partnerships to establish Chinese language and cultural education centers at American universities.
There are 55 Confucius Institutes in the U.S., including three scheduled to close within the year and one under review by its host university. There are nine institutes in New York state, although none are in Rep. Stefanik’s district. The closest is at SUNY Albany.
Confucius Institutes have come under heavy criticism since their founding in 2004, in part due to their unique structure. The institutes are overseen by the Center for Language Education and Cooperation, an office linked to the Chinese Ministry of Education. The center provides teacher candidates, between $100,000 and $200,000 per year in funding, and educational materials for the American outposts. Few other foreign language and culture institutes operate with such a high degree of government involvement in their daily operations.
Many people and groups linked to higher education, including the American Association of University Professors, have expressed concern that the presence of a Confucius Institute on a college campus may limit academic freedom, and host schools may be pressured by the Chinese government to censor speech that may be critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
Rep. Stefanik said she has concerns over the idea of federal taxpayer dollars flowing into institutions that host the cultural centers, as they could become focus points for Chinese propaganda.
Rep. Stefanik said, in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, both Republicans and Democrats voted to support an amendment withholding Department of Defense funding from institutions with Confucius Institutes.
The issue seems to have become more partisan in nature since then. Last week, in the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Stefanik introduced an amendment to the upcoming $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus aid package, which would prevent universities with Confucius Institutes from receiving aid from the package. The measure failed, with all votes falling along party lines.
“(Democrats) voted against that, every Republican voted for it, but I think it should be a bipartisan issue, combating China’s growing influence,” Rep. Stefanik said.
Supporters of Confucius Institutes have said the program is simply meant to improve cultural exchange between China and the U.S. No institutes have been formally charged with any wrongdoing, and existing institutes remain largely popular with their host schools. Institute officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Rep. Stefanik on Tuesday also cosponsored the Opposing Business with Chinese Military Companies Act, which was introduced last week by freshman Congressman Ronny L. Jackson, R-Texas. The bill would require the president to produce a list of companies operating in the U.S. that are owned or operated, openly or secretly, by the Chinese military. Those companies would then be subject to sanctions.
In November, former President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order banning Americans from investing in Chinese companies included on a list of firms that could threaten U.S. security, which achieved a similar goal to the Opposing Business with Chinese Military Companies Act. The order was meant to go into effect on Jan. 28, but President Joseph R. Biden paused the implementation until May 27 to review the order.
“I was very disappointed to see the Biden administration walked that back, that was one of the earliest decisions they made and rules they changed,” Rep. Stefanik said. “It was widely condemned from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.”
The two pieces of legislation from Tuesday are only a part of Rep. Stefanik’s work to combat Chinese influence in the U.S. In May of last year, she was appointed to the Congressional Republican China Task Force, which issued a report in September that made more than 400 recommendations on how the federal government can improve national security, economics, energy policy, technology and ideological competition against China.
Rep. Stefanik said that task force was initially bipartisan, but House Democrats walked away at the last minute.
“They were on the brink of announcing members of that task force, and the Democrats walked away,” Rep. Stefanik said. “Republicans think this is an important issue, and we had a very important, effective process with listening sessions, in-depth research.”
That task force was first established as a response to allegations that the Chinese government withheld information about the COVID-19 pandemic that could have saved lives or made the pandemic easier to respond to, but its findings covered many more issues than just the coronavirus pandemic.
The task force report ultimately contends that Chinese Communist Party ideology is actively undermining the current international system of state interactions and is putting American safety and security at risk. Rep. Stefanik has echoed that sentiment repeatedly.
The congresswoman has regularly focused on keeping the U.S. competitive in the face of Chinese technological and military advances, as the former ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
In 2018, a bill written by Rep. Stefanik establishing a joint commission on artificial intelligence for the U.S. military was included in the National Defense Authorization Act. The commission, chaired by Eric Schmidt, former chief executive officer of Google, has issued a number of recommendations on how the U.S. Department of Defense can attract talent in the AI industry.
“This is an area where China is making significant investment, where we can’t afford to take a backseat,” Rep. Stefanik said in an interview with the Times editorial board in October 2020.
The DOD has already followed through on one of the commission’s suggestions, to establish a joint AI research and development center for all branches of the military, improving communication and centralizing developments so they can be implemented across the branches.
Rep. Stefanik said she believes China poses a multitude of threats to American security and economic stability, from billions of dollars in intellectual property theft by Chinese companies, to Chinese espionage in American universities, to Chinese military advancements and the country’s international outreach.
Although it would appear that opposing China has become a primarily Republican issue, Rep. Stefanik said she will continue to bring the issue up for debate, and has hopes that the issue will become less partisan over time.
“One of the most critical issues that my generation is going to face in terms of maintaining economic security and maintaining U.S. national security is making sure that we’re countering China,” she said. “We need to make sure that we have a strategic advantage, and that China does not have the capability to take that away.”
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