COLUMBIA, Mo. - A Missouri U.S. senator urged two universities in the state to reconsider their agreements with an education group owned by the Chinese government.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) sent the letter on Wednesday to the University of Missouri and Webster University in St. Louis County, expressing his concerns over the Confucius Institute. Hawley cited answers he got from FBI Director Christopher Wray during a Senate hearing that same day.
Wray said he worried that the Confucius Institute, a subsidiary of the Chinese Ministry of Education, was an example of China's "soft power" in the U.S. Hawley said that more than 100 Confucius Institutes existed on American college campuses.
"Those offer a platform to disseminate Chinese government or Chinese community party propaganda, to encourage censorship, to restrict academic freedom," Wray said on Wednesday.
The Confucius Institute and MU first began working together in 2011, and renewed their five-year deal in 2016. Chinese scholars come to Columbia and help teach Chinese language courses at Columbia Public Schools, as well as free language classes at MU.
MU spokesman Christian Basi told ABC 17 News that it shared concerns with Hawley over the security of the school's research. Basi said school officials met with federal law enforcement this year regarding academic espionage, in which students or faculty may also work for a foreign government or competing company and seek to steal sensitive research the school is doing.
"So you wind up with technology being lost or important documents being put in the hands of other individuals," Basi said.
Basi said the school updated its conflict of interest policies following the meetings in an attempt to better monitor who faculty members or their families may work for.
School leaders have not worried that the Confucius Institute was passing along government propaganda or stifling free speech, Basi said. The two sides would have a chance to review the agreement in 2021.