The Trump administration accused the Confucius Institute US Centre (CIUS), which oversees language and cultural centres across the United States, of being part of Beijing’s “global influence and propaganda apparatus” when it announced that the CIUS will have to be registered as a foreign mission.
Discontent over the language and cultural centres’ alleged role in advancing Beijing’s global propaganda campaign has long simmered in the US, but Thursday’s formal designation comes amid a sharp downturn in US-China ties in recent weeks.
The designation usually applies to agencies involved in diplomatic and consular activities. CIUS will now have to keep Washington apprised of its staff, property, funding and curriculum.
This would give the State Department a better understanding of how the Chinese government “uses its network of Confucius Institutes and classrooms in the US to influence American scholars”, Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Missions Clifton Seagroves told a briefing.
Reacting to the move, the CIUS said it was more than happy to respond to the State Department’s information requests, but disagreed with its designation as a foreign mission.
The CIUS said it was not a headquarters for American Confucius Institutes, and was in no way involved in any Confucius Institute curriculum, employment or funding.
“CIUS has no influence, let alone ‘malign’ influence, over how universities run and manage their own Confucius Institute language programmes,” it said on its website.
“We know there are a lot of pressing issues between our two countries – Confucius Institutes are not one of them and we are working hard to keep it that way,” it added.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell clarified during the briefing that the US was not closing down Confucius Institute centres, but highlighting their ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The goal of these actions is simple: to ensure that American educators and school administrators can make informed choices about whether these CCP-backed programmes should be allowed to continue, and if so, in what fashion.”
CIUS executive director Gao Qing told The Straits Times: “Apparently, we are living in a time where teaching a foreign language is seen as a political act by some people.”
It was ironic that his “small team of American staff” is being defined as a foreign mission, he added.
Confucius Institute centres were set up to teach the Chinese language and promote Chinese culture. Its headquarters in Beijing – the Hanban – is affiliated with China’s Education Ministry.
There are 75 Confucius Institute centres in the US, including 65 on university campuses, with the rest functioning as standalone organisations, said Mr Stilwell. This comprises nearly a fifth of the more than 480 such centres around the world, including one in Singapore.
Some 45 Confucius Institutes have shut in the US since 2014, based on data from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a non-profit group.
Many of the closures were due to a law passed last year, which forced schools to choose between receiving funds for Chinese language classes from Washington under the Defence Department’s Language Flagship programme and from Beijing via its Confucius Institutes.
Officially documented evidence of foreign influence activities by the institutes has been mixed.
A February 2019 report by the US Government Accountability Office watchdog, which reviewed 10 Confucius Institute centres, found that all of them were headed by US school staff and not Chinese government staff.
Confucius Institute centres were set up to teach the Chinese language and promote Chinese culture. Its headquarters in Beijing is affiliated with China’s Education Ministry.
Number of Confucius Institute centres around the world.
Number of such centres in the United States.
Number of such centres in Singapore.
While some school officials and researchers told the watchdog they were concerned that hosting a Confucius Institute could limit academic freedom, others said their centres had hosted events on sensitive topics, such as the South China Sea territorial disputes.
A 2017 report by the NAS found that some of the institute’s faculty members face pressure to self-censor. Some universities also had financial incentives not to criticise China.
History professor Edward McCord of George Washington University (GWU), which has hosted a Confucius Institute since 2013, told The Straits Times the allegation that the centres promoted Chinese propaganda was “a common charge, but lacks any concrete evidence”.
He cited a 2019 study by the California-based Hoover Institution think-tank, which carefully examined materials provided from China to the centres and found no evidence of propaganda.
GWU’s Confucius Institute operates with no interference from China, he said, adding that it offers Chinese language classes and supports faculty research.
“It is very hard to see the malign influence that they (the State Department) claim occurs. It should be their responsibility to provide evidence, not just repeat unsupported charges,” Prof McCord said.
Mr Stilwell had accused China of taking advantage of the US’ free speech and academic freedom.
He said: “Our goal is to get the other side to understand the importance of transparency and openness and sharing, but until that happens, we’re going to take steps to defend ourselves.”