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Critics say Confucius Institutes critics are vehicles for Chinese influence on campuses. Photo: Handout

US set to make China’s Confucius Institutes register as ‘foreign missions’

  • Government-funded programme that teaches Chinese language and culture overseas facing growing scrutiny by Trump administration
  • Designation would subject Confucius Institutes, many based on university campuses, to rules similar to those for embassies and consulates

The Trump administration is increasing scrutiny of a long-established Chinese-government funded programme that is dedicated to teaching Chinese language and culture in the US and other nations, the latest escalation of tensions with Beijing.

The State Department plans to announce as soon as Thursday that Confucius Institutes in the US – many of which are based on college campuses – will need 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 Confucius 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.

Some 80 Confucius Institutes are based at US colleges, including Stanford University. Photo: AP
The institutes have long been a target of China hawks, with lawmakers including Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, urging schools in his state to terminate their agreements with them.

He called them “Chinese government-run programmes 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, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan in more than 40 years, while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo used a speech in Prague to blast the Chinese Communist Party’s “campaigns of coercion and control”.

Chinese threat may be worse than ‘Cold War 2.0’, says Pompeo

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 non-partisan research group that has studied them.

Although the institutes generally steer clear of history, politics and current affairs, 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.

The National Association of Scholars opposes them because it says their funding lacks transparency and topics sensitive to China’s government are off limits.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Confucius Institutes to be ‘foreign missions’