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Confucius Institutes increasingly under pressure from US

By ZHAO HUANXIN in Washington | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-08-14 11:24

The Confucius Institute US Center (CIUS) said Thursday it disagrees with the US State Department labeling it a "foreign mission" of China, a designation that also drew fire from beneficiaries of Confucius Institute (CI) programs.

In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his agency designated the CIUS a Chinese foreign mission, calling it "an entity advancing Beijing's global propaganda and malign influence campaign on US campuses and K-12 classrooms".

The designation concerned the main Confucius Institute center in Washington and is "not going after Confucius Centers per se", said Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell at a press briefing.

The State Department's move came nearly two months after it designated the US operations of four Chinese media outlets as foreign missions. Prior to that, five Chinese media outlets had already been so designated.

"We disagree with the State Department's designation and hope to clear up this fundamental misunderstanding," the CIUS said in a statement Thursday.

While Stilwell said the CIUS is an "organization that actually manages, supports, and funds Confucius Centers in the US", the CIUS replied: "We are not a headquarters for American Confucius Institutes."

Instead, CIUS is devoted to global education services and intercultural opportunities for American communities, promoting the "simple ideal" of Americans learning the Chinese language, which is shared by many educators and students across the US, according to the statement.

It insists that CIUS, which is not connected to a college campus and is in no way involved in any CI curriculum, employment or funding, is being "targeted symbolically".

"CIUS has no influence, let alone 'malign' influence, over how universities run and manage their own Confucius Institute language programs. We hope the State Department (will) visit those schools and see for themselves just as members of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) already have," it said.

The GAO, a federal agency that conducted interviews with institute personnel and school officials at 10 schools with CIs, reported in February 2019 that officials from more than half of the case-study schools said that establishing a CI offered benefits that aligned with the school's strategic plans to forge international connections and to expand the global reach of their campuses.

Officials at several case-study schools also said that the funding provided for the institutes was a small proportion of a larger budget related to Asian studies and Chinese-language programs, and, as a result, did not have the ability to exert undue influence, according to the GAO report.

The designation of CIUS as a foreign mission is expected to exacerbate the challengers for CI operations in the US.

Altogether, there are about 500 classrooms affiliated with the CI, and 65 institutes on US university campuses. Stilwell said Thursday that the US is not closing the CIs, but "would ask that universities, again, take a hard look at what those institutes are doing on their campuses".

Twitter user R Mclean, a doctoral candidate in political economy at Northern Ireland's Queen's University Belfast, rebutted Pompeo's tweet announcing the designation.

"In 2018, I attended a 2 week Mandarin language course run by the Confucius Institute," the scholar tweeted. "Not once did the teacher (or any other members of staff) even mention politics, never-mind try to indoctrinate the class with 'Beijing's propaganda'… McCarthyism is alive and well in US"

Douglas McDonald, a CI student at Tufts University near Boston, said political rhetoric against China's government has unfairly cast suspicion on cultural learning centers like the Confucius Institute.

In a recent op-ed piece in The Tennessean newspaper, McDonald, who calls himself Ma Degao, a typical Chinese name, recalled that he was 76 when he began a new journey into Chinese language and culture at the CI at University of Massachusetts, which is now closed.

"Not once, in a classroom setting, in personal conversation, or in a conference setting did the discussion turn to Chinese government policies or programs. But a world was opened in poetry, literature and culture that I had always hoped to understand," he wrote.

"Unlike the stories so often portrayed in the news about CI programs, my education was about building bridges with language and not as a political tool," McDonald noted.

As US-China relations have deteriorated in recent months, there has been a growing number of closures of CIs on US campus. Some of the cases were prompted by the pressures of lawmakers who lamented that the institutes "aren't what they are cracked up to be" or otherwise lack transparency, though many schools that ran the programs reported otherwise.

Gao Qing, executive director of the CIUS, said at least 20 CIs had been closed over the past year and a half.

In Tennessee, for example, the CI at the University of Memphis was closed at the end of June after initial efforts to keep it open failed.

Another campus, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), said early last month that it was "in the process of ending its affiliation with the Confucius Institute".

"From the outset, MTSU's partnership with the Confucius Institute has focused on cultural and social exchange opportunities rather than scientific research involving federal funds or sensitive areas of governmental interest," the Murfreesboro Post quoted university spokesman Andrew Oppmann as saying.

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