Arizona gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon championed the Confucius Institute during his time at Arizona State University, which has since been designated as a “foreign propaganda mission” by the U.S. State Department. Despite being referred to as a vehicle for the expansion of Chinese “soft power” by a member of the Chinese Politburo as far back as 2011, Salmon proudly defended ASU’s institute in 2018. “The answer is not to fold up and get rid of these kinds of programs. To me, the answer is to have more of this,” Salmon said.
Matt Salmon spent time on the International Relations Committee during both of his stints in Congress. During his two-term second stint, he chaired the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific before announcing his retirement in 2016. But before Salmon officially left Congress, he had already decided to join Arizona State University as Vice President for Government Affairs.
At the time, ASU was home to a CCP-funded Confucius Institute. According to the Chinese government, the project is merely a means to improve foreign relations and promote the exchange of Chinese culture. However, the program has been effectively halted in the U.S. after the State Department designated the Confucius Institute as a “foreign mission” of the PRC.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the institute “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms,” in a memo detailing the official designation in 2020. “Universities around the country and around the world are examining the Confucius Institutes’ curriculum and the scope of Beijing’s influence in their education systems. The United States wants to ensure that students on U.S. campuses have access to Chinese language and cultural offerings free from the manipulation of the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies.”
National security experts were sounding the alarm on the Confucius Institute long before the official designation, however. The PRC itself tipped its hand as to their objectives with the program as far back as 2011. In a 2011 speech at the Confucius Institute’s Beijing headquarters, Standing Politburo Committee member Li Changchun said: “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for extending our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
In 2013, the late University of Chicago professor Marshall Sahlins highlighted the issues and dangers stemming from CI’s. While numerous countries fund similar programs, Sahlins laid out the key differences. For example, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, which fosters the teaching of the German language at universities across the globe, is a stand-alone institution situated outside university precincts. A Confucius Institute, meanwhile, “exists as a virtually autonomous unit within the regular curriculum of the host school,” Sahlins wrote. “There’s another big difference: CIs are managed by a foreign government, and accordingly are responsive to its politics,” he continued.
Confucius Institutes answer to the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese Language Council International, commonly known as Hanban. Although official documents describe Hanban as “affiliated with the Ministry of Education,” it is governed by a council of high state and party officials from various political departments, including Politburo members, Sahlins said in 2013.
Despite widespread knowledge of the CCP’s intentions behind the project, ASU was enthusiastic about their Confucius Institute during Salmon’s tenure. “Over the past decade, the ASU-China ties have strengthened. More than 10,000 international graduate and undergraduate students attend ASU, with the largest group — about 3,000 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students — from China. Last year, ASU hosted more than 250 visiting Chinese scholars,” wrote ASU news in 2017.
“ASU’s relationships with Chinese institutions range from simple student and faculty exchanges to high-level research deals, such as a partnership with Shandong University on ‘bio-inspired cancer and vaccine research, water- and air-purification systems and advanced explorations of nanotechnology,” the university continued.
Salmon himself proudly defended the Confucius Institute in 2018, as bipartisan calls to clamp down on the program were growing. “There is plenty to be concerned about with our relationship with China. But the answer is not to walk away from that relationship. The answer is not to fold up and get rid of these kinds of programs. To me, the answer is to have more of this,” Matt Salmon said during a forum on China-U.S. educational exchanges.
Salmon was later quoted by Chinese media outlets after his defense of the Confucius Institute. “The Defense Department has invested in the Confucius Institute at ASU as it looks for a pipeline to Mandarin speakers, according to Matt Salmon, former U.S. representative and vice-president for government affairs at ASU,” reported the Chinese news source. “I find it a little bit incredulous that there are those who consider teaching Chinese language and culture as posing a security threat. … If it does pose a security threat, then the DoD has made a big mistake by funding our program.”
A little more than a year after Salmon’s comments, ASU was one of several universities that decided to shudder its Confucius Institute. The move came after Congress barred all universities hosting CI’s from receiving Department of Defense funding for Chinese language study, citing national security threats and growing CCP propaganda influence. ASU applied for a waiver to keep the program, but their request was denied by the Pentagon.