Many reports have examined the new legislation that Republican members of Congress have introduced. The bill calls for greater disclosure of foreign funding sources for US think tanks and cultural institutions, with a particular focus on funding from the Chinese government. Some reports have accused the Chinese of providing generous funding to think tanks with the goal of shaping US discourse and attitudes towards China, and influencing US policymakers. Despite the importance of this legislation, it is expected that it will encounter strong resistance from think tanks, which do not want their funding and research activities to be affected. The main characteristics of the new legislation, which calls for increased transparency about foreign funding sources for US think tanks and cultural institutions, as well as the ensuing controversy, are as follows:
1- A new bill on funding for US think tanks: The new legislation, which was recently introduced by three Republican members of Congress, is known as the “Think Tank and Nonprofit Influence Disclosure Act of 2021,” and aims to undermine foreign funding for US think tanks and research institutions, through requiring that these organizations disclose whether any foreign governments or foreign political parties contribute more than $50,000 annually to the think tank.
2- Targeting Chinese funding sources: Many reports have confirmed that the new legislation is primarily aimed at China, in order to uncover the nature of the funding that the Chinese government provides to US think tanks, and to determine the extent of its influence on US policymakers.
It is worth mentioning that the draft bill confirms that many think tanks and cultural organizations registered within the US receive funding from the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party, which aims to shape US perspectives and discourse on China.
3- The need to disclose funding entities: The draft bill draws upon policy recommendations from last year’s report from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, which found that leading US research institutions received 174 million USD in foreign funding between 2014 and 2018, and recommended that “think tanks, in accordance with this law, must fully disclose their funding from foreign powers.”
In 2019, the new US National Security Council stressed the importance of think tanks maintaining high standards of transparency in disclosing their funding sources and said that this would help ensure that this funding did not create hidden problems with foreign groups exerting pressure, promoting self-censorship, or any other activities that might undermine the fundamental democratic principles of the United States.
4- Limited response from think tanks: As reports have indicated, it is expected that these demands will face significant pushback from think tanks, so that their foreign funding, which determines the scope of their activities and research work, will not be affected. Therefore, there will likely be a limited response from think tanks with regard to disclosing their funding sources, especially those that actually do receive funding from the Chinese government.
As evidence of this, of the 237 witnesses from think tanks who were called to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee during its last two sessions, only 30 percent represented think tanks that fully and openly report their main donors and funding sources.
In conclusion, although Republican lawmakers are behind the new bill, some reports have linked the legislation with Biden administration effects to restrain China. In spite of the importance of this bill in determining the sources of funding for think tanks, its narrow focus on tracking down Chinese funding sources will undermine its credibility, especially given preliminary reports indicating that there will be strong pushback from think tanks against this legislation.