US sees 'malign influence' in China-backed school program

The Trump administration on Friday encouraged US schools and colleges to reconsider their ties to the Confucius Institute, a program that brings Chinese classes to America but also invites an "evil influence" from China, according to federal officials.
In letters to universities and state education officials, the State Department and Department of Education said the program was giving China support on US soil and threatening freedom of expression. Schools are advised to review the activities of the program and "take steps to protect your educational environment".
"The presence of this authoritarian influence on our campus has never been more worrying, nor has it been more consistent," officials wrote in letters signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
More than 60 US universities host the Confucius Institute through partnerships with a subsidiary of the Chinese Ministry of Education. China provides teachers and textbooks and usually shares the cost with the university. The program also brings Chinese classes to approximately 500 elementary and secondary school classes.
The program has been scrutinized by US officials amid tensions with China. In August, the State Department designated the program's national office as the Chinese Communist Party's overseas mission, requiring the program to provide reports on its operations and spending in the United States.
In Friday's letters, US officials drew attention to China's new national security law in Hong Kong, which critics say will restrict freedom of expression and other freedoms. The letters refer to recent reports that some US college professors are allowing students to opt out of discussions on Chinese politics because of fears that Hong Kong or Chinese students could face criminal prosecution at home.
Such fears are "well founded," officials said, adding that at least one student from China was recently arrested by Chinese authorities for tweets posted while studying at a US university.
The US Center of the Confucius Institute did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
DeVos and Pompeo repeated longstanding complaints from academic groups that schools are giving China too much control over what is taught in classes at the Confucius Institute. Teachers who are vetted and paid by the Chinese government "can be expected to avoid discussing China's treatment of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities," the officials wrote.
"Confucius Institutes are branded as Chinese language and culture learning centers, but there is growing evidence that they are also tools for the PRC's evil influence and spread of CCP propaganda on US campuses," officials said, citing the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party.
The letters do not explicitly ask the schools to cut ties with the Confucius Institute, but point out that the measure could avoid problems. Officials said many schools have set up "excellent Chinese language and culture programs" without the Chinese government.
The move marks the Trump administration's recent attempt to curb China's presence in the US in the battle over trade, coronavirus and human rights issues. Authorities have also asked universities to help stop trade secret theft by scientists tapped by the Chinese government.
The Confucius Institute, which was once housed at more than 100 universities, has closed in many locations amid fierce criticism. According to a protocol from the National Association of Scholars, a conservative nonprofit group, at least 39 universities have announced plans for shutter programs since early 2019.
Some of the closings were prompted by a 2018 Defense Act that prohibited universities from using Defense Ministry funds to support Chinese language programs even if they were also home to a Confucius Institute. At the University of Maryland, which founded the country's first Confucius Institute in 2004, officials cited the bill in their decision to end the program this year.
Last year, a report by the bipartisan Senate encouraged all universities to cut ties with the Confucius Institute unless Chinese officials made the program more transparent and gave the US equal opportunities for cultural contacts in China. Soon after, DeVos began cracking down on foreign gifts and contracts at US universities, often focusing on financial ties with China.
Other nations have also tried to curb China's influence on their schools. In August, Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, cut ties with the Confucius Institute and replaced the program with one funded by the state government. The Canadian province of New Brunswick has also announced that it will end the program in its public schools.

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