China said it plans to “optimise” the spread of its Confucius Institutes, the controversial institutions designed to promote Chinese language and culture but which have been criticised for spreading Communist Party influence. In 2004, China began setting up the government-run bodies, whose stated mission is to satisfy soaring global demand to learn Chinese. But they have faced opposition, especially in the United States, for being little more than a propaganda arm of the ruling party, assertions denied by both the institutes and Beijing. University of Michigan says it will cut ties with Confucius Institute The institutes will remain a key government policy, according to a document on modernising China’s education system by the party’s Central Committee and State Council, and released by Xinhua late on Saturday. “Optimise the regional distribution of the Confucius Institute, strengthen its abilities and building, and fully raise its educational standards,” it said. The organisations will also “strengthen work on the teaching of Chinese internationally” the statement said, without elaborating. Such broad statements are typically followed weeks or even months later by more detailed policy documents that focus on implementation. Some US legislators, including Florida Senator Macro Rubio, have been critical of the more than 100 Confucius Institutes hosted at universities across the United States, calling them a vehicle for Chinese influence on international higher education. Several major US colleges, including Pennsylvania State University and the University of Chicago, have cut ties with the institute after professors complained its programmes were Chinese propaganda wrapped in culture and language education. Spy risk or cultural asset? The divide over Confucius Institutes on US campuses The statement from Beijing added that China would improve educational opportunities for students from countries involved in the “Belt and Road Initiative”, speeding up the grooming of international talent and helping foreign students return home to better job prospects. China opened its first so-called Silk Road School last year in Suzhou in the eastern province of Jiangsu. About 100 students from countries in the initiative received scholarships as they study China’s economy, politics, law and culture. Students from belt and road countries such as Pakistan and Nepal are also eligible for scholarships to other universities in China. The belt and road plan, championed by President Xi Jinping, aims to link China by sea and land with southeast and central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, through an infrastructure network along the lines of the old Silk Road. Aside from boosting trade and investment, Xi aims to boost exchanges in areas such as science, technology, culture and education.