Colleges’ program with China comes under Senate’s crosshairs
A bipartisan report from Congress is urging U.S. colleges and universities to sever ties with the Confucius Institute, a program that allows the Chinese government to help teach language classes on American campuses but that, according to critics, poses a threat to national security and academic freedom.
The report, released Wednesday, found that federal agencies have failed to monitor the program and the $158 million it has sent to the United States since 2006. The panel says the program should “not continue in the United States” unless Chinese officials provide full transparency and offer the U.S. equal opportunities for cultural outreach in China.
“We learned that schools in the United States — from kindergarten to college — have provided a level of access to the Chinese government that the Chinese government has refused to provide to the United States,” said Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who leads the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
More than 100 U.S. colleges host Confucius Institutes through partnerships with Hanban, an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education. Hanban provides teachers and directors from China, along with textbooks and startup funding of $100,000 to $200,000. Schools have to sign a contract with Hanban and agree to split the cost.
The investigation by Portman’s panel found that the deals give Chinese authorities too much control over programs on U.S. soil.
Many colleges told investigators they don’t know how Hanban selects its teachers or if its process aligns with campus hiring policies. Teachers sent by Hanban sign contracts saying they will “safeguard national interests” for China. As a result, the Senate found, the program often depicts China as “approachable and compassionate” while leaving out critical views of the country.
The report adds to mounting scrutiny of a program that has been dogged by criticism for years. Professors have said China’s control of the program encourages schools to avoid events or speakers that might be seen as controversial by China.
The Confucius Institute U.S. Center did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
At least 10 schools have announced plans to close Confucius Institutes since the start of 2018, including the University of Michigan, Texas A&M University and the University of Minnesota.
Last April, the Texas A&M University system closed its Confucius Institutes at the request of two Texas congressmen who called the program a threat to national security. The system’s chancellor, John Sharp, said at the time he didn’t question the lawmakers’ judgment.
The University of Rhode Island closed its institute in January to preserve federal funding for its Chinese language program after a 2018 national defense bill explicitly barred schools from using Defense Department money on Chinese language programs if the school hosts Confucius Institutes.
The Senate panel acknowledged that there are mixed views on the institutes. While some school officials told investigators they had concerns about China’s influence, others reported no concerns about academic freedom or undue control.
The congressional report called for increased oversight of the program.
At the State Department, officials have been ramping up oversight, the report found. Last year, the U.S. revoked 32 visas for Chinese nationals who said they were coming for research but were found to be teaching at Confucius Institutes. This year the department plans to take a close look at more campuses.
At the same time, the report found that the State Department doesn’t collect information on Confucius Institute employees and doesn’t know how many are in the U.S. The Education Department tells schools to report foreign gifts of more than $250,000, but the Senate found that 70 percent that received that amount from Hanban didn’t properly report it, and the agency didn’t catch it.
Through its own investigation, the Senate found that Hanban has sent more than $158 million to more than 100 U.S. schools since 2006.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the investigations panel, said that while there’s no evidence of illegal activity, U.S. officials must “have our eyes wide open about the presence of these institutes in our schools and around young, impressionable students,” especially since the program is tied to “a much different worldview than ours.”
In response to the early success of the Confucius Institutes, the State Department launched its own American Cultural Center program in 2010, paying more than $5 million to set up 29 outposts at Chinese universities. But China has routinely interfered with the program and its activities, the Senate found.
But the program was ended in October 2018 after the State Department’s internal watchdog found that it was ineffective, the report revealed.
The panel encouraged colleges to continue partnering with Chinese universities in other ways. “Partnering with foreign universities offers students unique international learning experiences and enhances research opportunities,” it said. “U.S. schools, however, should never, under any circumstances, compromise academic freedom.”
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