Fri, Jun 08, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Debate grows regarding the purpose of Confucius Institutes on US campuses

AP, WASHINGTON

On college campuses in virtually every state across the US, the Chinese government supports more than 100 institutes that teach language and culture.

For university students like Moe Lewis, they offer a chance to learn about Chinese art and pick up a few phrases in Mandarin. For critics, like US Senator Marco Rubio, they present a threat to academic freedom and a spy risk.

As tensions between the US and China rise over trade and security, perceptions vary wildly about educational exchanges that have thrived since diplomatic relations were normalized four decades ago.

Increasingly, US authorities are concerned that Chinese professors and students could exploit access to universities to gather intelligence and sensitive research.

While the China-funded Confucius Institutes that have mushroomed worldwide since 2004 focus on benign subject matter, US lawmakers are pushing for them to be more tightly regulated or even shuttered.

“I think every college should be aware of what these institutes are used for and that they are in fact consistently been used as a way to quash academic freedom on campus at the behest of a foreign government,” Rubio said. “I would encourage every college in America to close them. There’s no need for these programs.”

The view from the George Mason University campus a few kilometers outside Washington is much different.

While institutes have sometimes been accused of squelching anti-Beijing views on issues like Tibet, Lewis, an undergraduate studying animation, said she has seen no sign of intentional bias, adding that the institute is one of her favorite places on campus.

“I think that it’s nice to have a lot of multicultural experiences, especially with countries that [we] have tensions with,” Lewis said. “It’s important to learn about those places.”

The debate over Confucius Institutes has become a testing ground for the US response to China’s growing global reach and underscores anxieties over the more than 350,000 Chinese who study in the US, more than one-third of all foreign students.

Only about 20,000 Americans study in China.

In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray voiced concern that China could be using professors or students to collect intelligence at universities naive about the risks.

He also told a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats that the FBI was monitoring Confucius Institutes, although he highlighted no evidence of wrongdoing.

Rubio is cosponsoring legislation that would require the institutes to register with the US government as representing the interests of a foreign power.

“To me as a person, it seems to be more about fear, an anti-China sentiment, rather than speaking of the truth,” Confucius Institute US Center executive director Gao Qing (高青) said in Washington. “The problem I have with people who disagree with Confucius Institutes is that they haven’t visited them.”

Political suspicion about the Confucius Institutes has been driven in part by their sheer reach, with more than 500 in 140 countries, and by China’s rise as a world power.

In 2009, a top Chinese Communist Party leader described the institutes as “an important part” of the nation’s overseas propaganda. The Chinese government contributes teachers, materials and funding.

The US has been the biggest beachhead. However, have threats to academic freedom — which forced the closure of institutes on campuses in Chicago and Pennsylvania in 2014 — been overblown?

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