ROBERT LABERGE / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP
The U.S. State Department has designated China’s Confucius Institute U.S. Center, which oversees state-affiliated educational partnerships between Chinese and overseas universities, as a Chinese foreign mission.
In a statement on Thursday, August 13, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the organization’s U.S. headquarters in Washington, DC, “a malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and classrooms.”
“Today, the Department of State designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China, recognizing Confucius Institute US for what it is: an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms,” the statement said.
“Confucius Institutes are funded by the People’s Republic of China and part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus,” it continued.
Pompeo said the designation of the Confucius Institute’s U.S. outpost as a foreign mission was aimed at ensuring that American schools were able to make “informed choices” about whether programs backed by China’s ruling Communist Party regime should be allowed to operate in the U.S.
“The United States wants to ensure that students on U.S. campuses have access to Chinese language and cultural offerings that are free from the manipulation of China’s Communist Party and its proxies,” Pompeo said in the statement.
David Stilwell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said during a media briefing that Confucius Institutes currently in North America were not being “kicked out,” but rather are being asked to be transparent in their endeavors.
“We ask them to tell us what they’re doing here in the U.S.,” Stilwell said. “We’re not closing them, we’re simply designating them as what they are—as foreign missions.”
The U.S. in June also designated four major Chinese media outlets as foreign missions and called them out as “propaganda outlets.”
In a post on the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo that has since been taken down, the U.S. Embassy in China clarified its position.
“We do support the learning of Chinese as a language and also the Chinese culture, as well as research in the United States, but it must be transparent,” the post read.
“Identifying the Confucius Institute as a foreign mission will provide our U.S. State Department with important information on employees, funding and recruitment of citizens from China in the United States,” it added.
The news drew ire from Chinese netizens and began to trend on Weibo.
“The American democratic system is so fragile that even Confucius Institutes are being targeted,” wrote one user.
Another user wrote: “You slam China but what about your cozy relations with Russia? Should the world overlook that?”
Others on Weibo called Pompeo’s stance hypocritical.
“If Pompeo says Chinese education programs only serve as government propaganda then he should apply that to himself because to the world, he blindly echoes U.S. President Donald Trump,” one user said.
The global network of Confucius Institutes operates alongside the Hanban, a public institution linked to the Chinese Ministry of Education.
By the end of 2018, there were over 540 Confucius Institutes across the world the BBC said, citing official data. The BBC added that there are 1,193 Confucius Classrooms—subsidiaries of Confucius Institutes targeting elementary and high school students—globally.
According to the Hanban, its international network of Confucius Institutes functions as “non-profit educational institutions” that “enhance understanding of Chinese language and culture among foreigners, develop friendly relations between China and other countries, foster the development of multiculturalism and contribute to the building of a harmonious world.”
But the Confucius Institutes have faced criticism in the past for being a conduit for Chinese propaganda. A 2017 report by the New York-headquartered National Scholars Association said that since its founding in 2004, the Confucius Institute and its global affiliates tow the Communist Party line and “avoid Chinese political history and human rights abuses.”
In July, the Hanban rebranded after 16 years in order to mitigate the global backlash, changing its name instead to the Ministry of Education Center for Language Education and Cooperation.
In a statement, the Confucius Institute U.S. Center said it was “more than happy to respond to the State Department’s information requests.”
“Much of the same has been voluntarily offered by us to the State Department or other agencies in past attempts to be transparent, which we remain committed.”
It added that it “disagreed with the State Department’s designation” and said it hopes to clear up a “fundamental misunderstanding.”
“Our office, which is not connected to a college campus and is in no way involved in any Confucius Institute curriculum, employment, or funding, is being targeted symbolically,” it said.
“CIUS has no influence, let alone ‘malign’ influence, over how universities run and manage their own Confucius Institute language programs.”
The designation comes as relations between the US and China continue to deteriorate. Last month, the US and China both ordered the closures of consulates in response to heightened rhetoric between the two nations.