Senate panel wants Chinese-funded institutes to change or leave US

Students holding umbrellas walking past a Confucius statue after a morning session of the National College Entrance Exams in Wunan, Hebei province, China. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: China has provided over US$158 million to US schools for Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture, US Senate investigators said on Wednesday, releasing a report saying the centres have acted as tightly controlled propaganda arms for Beijing and should be changed – or shut down.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spent eight months investigating the Confucius Institutes, which were created in 2004 to promote Chinese language and culture at schools and universities around the world.

But the centres have been criticised, particularly in the United States, for promoting the views of the Chinese Communist party, assertions denied by both the institutes and the government.

The FBI has said it is “watching warily” the Confucius Institutes and the State Department has called them “China’s most powerful soft power platforms,” the investigators found.

The report said the Department of Justice should decide whether any Confucius Institutes or their employees should register as foreign agents.

China’s government said on Feb 24 that it plans to “optimise” the spread of the institutes and they will remain a key part of government policy.

The new Senate report said China’s government controls nearly every aspect of the institutes in the United States, including their funding, staff and programming.

It also can veto any programme or speaker.

The report was released amid a costly trade war between Washington and Beijing, which has seen President Donald Trump and other US officials accuse the Chinese of using students as spies, stealing intellectual property and a range of other dirty tricks.

Earlier on Wednesday, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told a House of Representatives committee that the United States will need to maintain the threat of imposing tariffs on Chinese goods for years even if a deal is struck to end the current dispute.

No evidence of espionage

The Senate investigators did not find evidence that staff at the Confucius Institutes were involved in espionage or other activity that would need reporting to law enforcement.

But they did find many staff had obtained the wrong type of visa and that 70% of US colleges and universities that received at least US$250,000 per year from the Chinese government did not report it as required by the Department of Education.

The report’s recommendations included requiring that US schools publish online all contracts with foreign governments, ensure hiring conforms to their rules, not Beijing’s, and that the State Department review all visas and demand reciprocal treatment in China.

“Absent full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for US cultural outreach efforts on US campuses in China, Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States,” Senator Rob Portman, the subcommittee’s Republican chairman, said in a statement.

Subcommittee investigators said they were considering legislation to ensure the centres complied with their recommendations.

The subcommittee will hold a hearing on China’s influence on US education on Thursday.

Speaking at a daily news briefing in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the “baseless accusations” and “politicisation” of Confucius Institutes betrayed a “typical cold war mentality and lack of confidence”.

He said the institutes were open and transparent and contributed to advancing people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.

Besides Confucius Institutes at 100 US schools, Beijing also funds more than 500 “Confucius Classrooms” that teach Chinese language and culture in primary and high schools.

The investigators said some of the US universities’ contracts with the Chinese government include non-disclosure provisions and require adherence to US and Chinese law.

They faulted the US Department of Education for doing too little oversight.

Officials at the Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report also said the US State Department had tried to set up a programme in China to promote US culture, but that China had insisted on controlling the programme to such an extent that the department stopped funding it in October.