Calling it a source of communist propaganda, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley on Wednesday called for the University of Missouri and Webster University in St. Louis “to reconsider” their ties to the Confucius Institute.

Hawley sent a letter to UM System President Mun Choi, Chancellor Alexander Cartwright and Board of Curators Chair Jon Sundvold with the request after FBI Director Christopher Wray testified Tuesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Responding to a question from Hawley about the Confucius Institutes, Wray said he was “encouraged” by the number of schools that have restricted or severed their ties to the Chinese organization.

Hawley then asked about the advice Wray had for college presidents.

“I would think a university president ought to do an awful lot of homework and we’d be happy to have the local field office sit down with them to talk to them about what we know that can be shared about Confucius Institutes so that they can make a thoughtful decision themselves about whether it is something they really want to have on their campus,” Wray responded.

In the letter to UM, Hawley wrote that the Confucius Institutes exist to enhance China’s image in western countries and are a threat to academic freedom.

“Most troubling of all, Confucius Institutes pose a danger to our national defense and security,” Hawley wrote. “Our nation’s top law enforcement and national security officials have been vocal about the threat of Confucius Institutes and other Chinese initiatives as a conduit for espionage and research theft.”

University leaders are reviewing Hawley's letter and deciding if they need to take any action, spokesman Christian Basi said.

"We really appreciate the senator’s concerns that he had described in his letter," Basi said. "We take any threats to academic freedom, to free speech and certainly to espionage against the United States very, very seriously."

The role of the Confucius Institutes on campuses across the nation has been the subject of discussions between leaders and law enforcement agencies, Basi said. UM leaders have already done what Wray suggested, he said.

"The FBI has had conversations with higher education leaders at national conferences," Basi said. "We, the University of Missouri leadership and leadership of all four UM universities, have met with local FBI personnel and discussed this concern in detail."

Sang Kim, director of the MU Confucius Institute, referred questions to the MU News Bureau.

Confucius Institutes have been opening since 2004 and the one at MU began in 2011 with a five-year agreement, renewed in 2016. In the agreement, the institute agreed to provide Chinese language instruction, certify Chinese language teachers, provide information and consultation on China’s education and culture, and conduct language and cultural exchanges.

The institute began a partnership with Columbia Public Schools in 2012 to provide training for Chinese language teachers in elementary and secondary school classrooms.

The Confucius Institutes are funded through the Chinese Ministry of Education’s Office of Chinese Language Council International. There are more than 500 Confucius Institutes worldwide and more than 100 on U.S. college campuses, Hawley noted in his letter.

In the letter, Hawley also referred to comments from the former propaganda chief of the Chinese Politburo, which includes the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad,” Li Changchun said in 2011, according to a 2018 article in Politico. “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.”

As a soft power initiative, Hawley wrote, the Chinese government supplies Confucius Institutes with material that portrays China in a positive light and downplays issues associated with Taiwan, Tibet and the Tiananmen Square protests.

Taiwan is a Chinese province that was not subjugated by the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. It asserts it is independent of China and China considers it a part of its territory. An uprising in Tibet in 1959, followed by the flight of the Dalai Lama to India and war with India, and ongoing conflict between the people there and Beijing has been an international human rights concern.

“These Confucius Institutes are, in short, a tool for China to spread influence and exercise soft power in its rivalry with the United States,” Hawley wrote.

In the letter, Hawley wrote that partnering universities sign contracts that prohibit them from ‘tarnishing the reputation’ of the Chinese ministry that funds the institutes. The agreement with MU only mentions reputation once, in a section on causes for terminating the contract, where it states that it can be ended "if the act of one party of the agreement severely harms the image and reputation of the Confucius Institute."

The university does not view that clause as limiting what can be offered on campus in classrooms or by visiting lecturers, Basi said.

"The university’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech has not changed in any way since the arrival of the Confucius institute," he said. "We steadfastly defend our academic freedom and our faculty’s freedom and the right of free speech for the university community and our visitors. No activity has been banned or stopped as a result of this partnership."

The next contract renewal for the Confucius Institute would be in 2021, Basi noted. As it approaches, MU will review its experience with the Confucius Institute, its activities and the benefits from the agreement. It will also review why other schools have terminated or continued agreements with the Chinese.

In the letter, Hawley noted that at least 10 universities had terminated agreements with Confucius Institutes in the past year.

“I respectfully and strongly urge you to reconsider the costs and risks that come with allowing a Confucius Institute to remain on your campus, and with entering any other agreements with the Chinese government,” Hawley wrote.