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China is building soft power in U.S. schools, Senate report warns

The country has shelled out $158 million to seed a network of Confucius Institutes in the United States

Sen. Rob Portman, the Investigations subcommittee chair who led work on the report, said it was time for the State Department to start retaliating against Beijing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Rob Portman, the Investigations subcommittee chair who led work on the report, said it was time for the State Department to start retaliating against Beijing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A new bipartisan report by a Senate investigative panel has found that the Chinese government has the potential to use a popular Mandarin language program it funds at hundreds of U.S. universities and K-12 schools to shape and even stifle the discussion of controversial Beijing policies.

Although the findings are cause for concern, the report did not show a pattern of egregious incidents of U.S. academic research being squashed or that campus debate had been overtly stifled on matters that China views as sensitive such as Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square massacre. But the report did say the institutes fostered a climate where self-censorship on those topics was more likely to occur among university officials and students.

The findings of the 96-page report, released Wednesday by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, revealed that much is still unknown about the scope and intentions behind the Confucius Institutes, despite an eight-month Senate committee investigation and a parallel assessment by the Government Accountability Office. Since 2006, China has spent $158 million to build and maintain a network of Confucius Institutes in the United States.

The institutes offer language classes and cultural programming and are funded by the Chinese government, which also sends Chinese language instructors to the U.S. and provides the course materials. The first institute opened in the United States in 2004. As of January, there were roughly 100 institutes at American college campuses and around 500 at K-12 schools.

A hearing on the report was held Thursday by the Investigations panel of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Sen. Rob Portman, the Investigations subcommittee chair who led work on the report, said it was time for the State Department to begin retaliating against Beijing for its lack of reciprocity when it comes to how the Chinese government represses U.S. cultural centers in China. He said State could consider denying visas to Confucius Institutes teachers and urging American universities to rethink their relationships with the cultural promotion program.

“We’re not near to the point of suggesting that we discontinue [the institutes], but unless there is transparency and following U.S. law, we ought to discontinue the existing practice because … we’re not enforcing our own laws,” the Ohio Republican said at the hearing. “We believe that China ought to be a strategic partner in addition to being a strategic competitor and yet it’s got to be on an equal playing field.”

A panel of government witnesses from the State and Education departments and GAO did not take the bait offered by Sen. Mitt Romney when he asked whether they felt the Confucius Institutes constitute a “propaganda effort, a mind-shaping effort of our young people.”

But the officials agreed there is reason for concern and more oversight needed. Republican senators on the subcommittee pressed for specific actions.

“It’s stunning to me that they have effectively shut down our cultural centers in China. We’re going to be down to zero in the summer, and yet they have 100 here,” Romney said, referring to Beijing’s squashing of the State Department’s decade-long effort to establish a network of “American Cultural Centers” at Chinese universities. “Why don’t we take reciprocal action?”

Jennifer Galt, principal deputy assistant secretary for cultural and educational affairs, said the State Department is “involved in a larger discussion with U.S. universities about the importance of transparency, about the importance of academic freedom.”

The freshman Republican senator from Utah suggested the State Department should begin disapproving visa requests for Confucius Institute teachers to work in the United States.

“You are hitting the nail on the head,” Portman said in response to Romney’s suggestion.

Lack of transparency

Over the course of the Senate investigation, 10 U.S. colleges shut down their Confucius Institutes. Portman said he thought that was at least partly a result of questions raised by Senate investigators as they conducted research for the report.

Among the report’s findings was that nearly 70 percent of postsecondary U.S. schools that received $250,000 in “foreign gifts” for running a Confucius Institute failed to properly report it to the Education Department. But senators also faulted the department for going 15 years without updating its guidance to U.S. schools on the reporting of foreign gifts — the exact lifespan of Confucius Institutes presence in the United States.

GAO investigators turned up anecdotal reports from several university researchers who said the presence of a Confucius Institute on campus might discourage the organizing of events on Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square elsewhere on campus. To hold such an event, the researchers said in the report, would be seen as discourteous or even potentially a violation of the contract that the Chinese Education Ministry requires U.S. colleges to sign if they want to establish a Confucius Institute.

And Chinese teachers at the institutes are frequently required to sign contracts with the Chinese government promising not to harm the national interests of China.

The State Department until recently did not conduct field site reviews of Confucius Institutes to check they were following U.S. visa laws. In the last fifteen years, only two such visits occurred, and both found “significant violations” including evidence of “fraudulent paperwork and coaching” that was a “deliberate attempt to deceive” investigators, according to Portman.

Foggy Bottom does not know many Confucius Institute teachers are in the United States, he said.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Planning Committee recently issued a statement saying it intends to expand and “operationalize” the institutes, which are located all over the world, including increasingly in Latin America and the Caribbean, Portman said.

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