WASHINGTON - The United States said on Thursday (Aug 13) it would require the centre that oversees Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes across America to register as a foreign mission, accusing it of being part of Beijing's "global influence and propaganda apparatus".
Discontent over the language and cultural centres' alleged role in advancing Beijing's global propaganda campaign has long simmered in the US, but Thursday's formal designation comes amid a sharp downturn in the US-China relationship in recent weeks.
The designation, usually applied to agencies involved in diplomatic and consular activities, would require the Confucius Institute US Centre (CIUS) to keep Washington apprised of its staff, property, funding and curriculum.
This would give the State Department a better understanding of how the Chinese government "uses its network of Confucius Institutes and classrooms in the US to influence American scholars", said Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Missions Clifton Seagroves at a briefing.
In a response, the CIUS said it was more than happy to respond to the State Department's information requests, but disagreed with its designation as a foreign mission.
The CIUS also said it was not a headquarters for American Confucius Institutes, and was in no way involved in any Confucius Institute curriculum, employment, or funding.
"Our office... is being targeted symbolically. CIUS has no influence, let alone 'malign' influence, over how universities run and manage their own Confucius Institute language programmes," it said in a statement on its website.
"We know there are a lot of pressing issues between our two countries - Confucius Institutes are not one of them and we are working hard to keep it that way," it added.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell clarified during the briefing that the US was not closing down Confucius Institutes, but highlighting their ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
"We do support Chinese language, culture, and study in the US, but it has to be transparent and it can't include coercion," Mr Stilwell, the top diplomat for Asia, added.
"The goal of these actions is simple: to ensure that American educators and school administrators can make informed choices about whether these CCP-backed programmes should be allowed to continue, and if so, in what fashion," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement.
CIUS executive director Gao Qing told The Straits Times in an email: "We are currently evaluating this situation to better understand what the designation means to us."
China's foreign ministry said on Friday (Aug 14) the US crackdown on the Confucius Institutes demonises and stigmatises the normal functioning of the program. The Institutes have been observing local laws, and China deplores the move, ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing.
The Institutes have been observing local laws, and China deplores the move, ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing.
Confucius Institutes were set up to teach the Chinese language and promote Chinese culture, and their headquarters in Beijing - the Hanban - is affiliated with China's Education Ministry.
There are 75 Confucius Institutes operating in the US, including 65 on university campuses, with the rest functioning as standalone organisations, said Mr Stilwell. This comprises nearly a fifth of the more than 480 Confucius Institutes worldwide, including one in Singapore.
The centres have come under growing scrutiny and pressure from lawmakers and officials, who see them as propaganda arms promoting China's official view on sensitive issues such as Xinjiang and Taiwan.
Some 45 Confucius Institutes have closed since 2014, a trend that accelerated in the past two years, according to statistics from the National Association of Scholars non-profit organisation.
Many of the closures were due to a law passed in 2019, which forced schools to choose between receiving funds for Chinese language classes from Washington under the Defence Department's Language Flagship programme, or from Beijing via its Confucius Institutes.
"Apparently, we are living in a time where teaching a foreign language is seen as a political act by some people," CIUS executive director Mr Gao said.
Defining his "small team of American staff" as a foreign mission was ironic, Mr Gao said, adding: "Clearly caught up in international saber-rattling, this naked political opportunism is in serious need of a fact check."
Officially-documented evidence of foreign influence activities by the Confucius Institutes has been mixed.
A February 2019 report by the US Government Accountability Office watchdog, which reviewed 10 Confucius Institutes, found that all 10 were headed by US school employees and not Chinese government employees.
And while some school officials and researchers told the GAO that they were concerned that hosting a Confucius Institute could limit academic freedom on campus, others said their Confucius Institutes had hosted events on sensitive topics, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But a 2017 report by the NAS, cited by the State Department on Thursday, found that some CI faculty face pressure to self-censor and that some universities had financial incentives to not criticise China.
History professor Edward McCord of George Washington University (GWU), which has hosted a Confucius Institute since 2013, told ST that the State Department's allegation that the institutes promoted Chinese propaganda was "a common charge, but lacks any concrete evidence".
He cited a 2019 study by the California-based Hoover Institution think tank, which carefully examined materials provided from China to the Confucius Institutes and found no evidence of propaganda.
GWU's Confucius Institute operates with no interference from China, he said, adding that it offers Chinese language classes and supports faculty research.
"It is very hard to see the malign influence that they (the State Department) claim occurs. It should be their responsibility to provide evidence, not just repeat unsupported charges," Prof McCord said.
" Of course, the Institutes are partnered with Chinese institutions, and this is common knowledge - not some new discovery that people need to be alerted to. The question remains whether they are indeed advancing Chinese propaganda, which remains clearly false," he added.
Thursday's action is in line with Washington's designation this year of nine Chinese state media organisations operating in the US as foreign missions, including the Global Times tabloid and Xinhua News Agency.
Accusing China of taking advantage of America's free speech and academic freedom, Mr Stilwell said: "Our goal is to get the other side to understand the importance of transparency and openness and sharing, but until that happens we're going to take steps to defend ourselves."