A US clampdown on visas for instructors at China’s flagship cultural program overseas has incensed Beijing, with state media pouncing on it as an attempt by Washington to frustrate Chinese global ambitions.
A US directive last week said many Chinese instructors had the wrong kind of visa, though it appeared largely resolved by Thursday. The US State Department expressed regret over how the matter was handled and said it was working on a way for teachers to update their status without returning home.
However, the commotion it set off has underlined China’s sensitivity about the more than 300 Confucius Institutes it has opened globally in less than a decade as a way of spreading its influence abroad.
They primarily give language instruction, but also engage in cultural exchanges and are set up at universities overseas, where they have drawn concerns that they are propaganda machines aimed at stifling academic criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.
The State Department announced on Thursday last week that many teachers at Confucius Institutes on US university campuses would have to switch their visas, because they were teaching kindergarten through 12th grade while holding visas for university-level instructors. There were fears hundreds of them would have to return home, disrupting more than 80 US-based institutes.
Chinese state media reacted swiftly, calling the restrictions an anti-Chinese witch hunt meant to distract Americans from a bleak economic picture in a presidential election year.
“This absurd measure reflects illogical thinking and an immature mentality,” an editorial by the state-run People’s Daily said. “Finding scapegoats, witch hunting and shifting focuses are not the right ways to do things.”
Under the headline “US suddenly finds fault with Confucius Institutes,” the state-run Global Times said in an article on Thursday that Washington was worried about the rising influence of the US-based Confucius Institutes. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin (胡錫進), wrote on his microblog that the US seemed to be using the visa issue as an excuse to “limit the growth” of the institutes.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said earlier in the week that the government was in emergency consultations with the US over the issue.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the agency was working on ways for the teachers to update their visas while remaining in the US. She said on Friday that the original directive issued by the US on May 17 had been “sloppy and not complete” and a new directive issued on Friday should clarify matters.
“People-to-people relations between the US and China are a very high priority for us,” Nuland told a news conference. “We want to get this right. That’s why we are fixing this guidance.”
The Beijing headquarters for the Confucius Institutes, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as Hanban, said the visa issue appeared to be resolved.
“No need for criticism now that our teachers and volunteers can continue their normal work, and students and parents will not be affected,” Hanban spokeswoman Li Lizhen said. “Let’s show some friendship.”
China has set up 81 Confucius Institutions in collaboration with US colleges since 2004.
They are similar to cultural centers such as France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, but differ in that they make no claim to be independent from their country’s government.