US President Donald Trump’s administration is increasing scrutiny of a long-established Chinese-government funded program that is dedicated to teaching Chinese language and culture in the US and other nations, the latest escalation of tensions with Beijing.
The US Department of State was expected to announce as soon as yesterday that Confucius Institutes in the US — many of which are based on college campuses — would have to register as “foreign missions,” according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified.
The designation would amount to a conclusion that the institutes are “substantially owned or effectively controlled” by a foreign government. That would subject them to administrative requirements similar to those for embassies and consulates.
The State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, took similar action toward several Chinese media outlets earlier this year.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
The institutes have long been a target of China hawks, with US lawmakers such as Senator Marco Rubio, urging schools in his state to end their agreements with them.
He called them “Chinese government-run programs that use the teaching of Chinese language and culture as a tool to expand the political influence” of the government.
The move is likely to further stoke tensions with Beijing as the two countries clash over everything from the governance of Hong Kong to 5G technology.
This week, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar became the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in more than 40 years, while US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo used a speech in Prague to blast the Chinese Communist Party’s “campaigns of coercion and control.”
Initially welcomed by colleges that might otherwise have struggled to fund Chinese language programs, the institutes generally steer clear of history, politics and current affairs.
Still, critics say they are vehicles for Chinese influence on campuses, providing the government in Beijing leverage to censor teaching materials and academic events by threatening to withdraw funding for the institutes.
Of some 550 Confucius Institutes around the world, 80 are based at US colleges, including Stanford University and Savannah State University in Georgia, according to the National Association of Scholars, a nonpartisan research group that has studied them.
The association opposes the institutes because it says their funding lacks transparency and topics sensitive to China’s government are off limits.
Unlike Germany’s Goethe Institutes or France’s Alliance Francaise, China’s Confucius Institutes are not independently run and have also become controversial in countries such as Canada, Australia, and the UK.
A 2013 Canadian Security Intelligence Service report described the institute as a Trojan Horse to spy on Canadian intelligence.
Canberra last year boosted scrutiny of universities’ compliance with new foreign influence laws, after revelations about Beijing’s authority over Confucius Institutes on campuses, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age reported.
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