Hanging red lanterns welcome visitors to the University of Maryland’s Confucius Institute, the oldest of about 100 Chinese language and cultural centers that have popped up over the past 15 years on American campuses, subsidized by millions of dollars from China’s central government.

But last fall, when four U.S. Senate investigators walked into the Confucius offices in Maryland and spent hours questioning staff, they weren’t looking for an educational exchange. The committee has been seeking detailed information from the university about the program, including contracts, email exchanges and financial arrangements that school administrators have kept confidential since it started in 2004.

American colleges once viewed these jointly funded institutes as an economical way to expand their language offerings, one that could also bring warmer ties with China and an influx of Chinese international students paying full tuition.

But U.S. officials, particularly under President Donald Trump, are taking aim at Confucius and other Chinese government-supported programs, warning that universities have unwittingly exposed themselves to undue influence or even spies from America’s major political and economic rival.

As Chinese cybertheft increases and the numbers of Chinese exchange students and scholars rise, officials have stepped up pressure on administrators to take more precautions to guard against espionage and efforts to steal American technologies and research data.

Opponents of the Confucius Institutes argue that such programs give Beijing a toehold in prominent American academic communities to influence attitudes and censor discussions of subjects sensitive to China, such as the Dalai Lama, Taiwan and human rights.

Robert Daly, a China scholar at the Wilson Center who previously directed the University of Maryland’s initiatives on China, dismissed as “nonsensical” the suggestion that Confucius Institutes are hotbeds of espionage. But he and many other experts agree that they are clearly instruments of the Chinese government.

“You can ask why American universities are letting the Chinese Communist Party set up soft-power agencies on their campuses,” Daly said. “A lot of university presidents believed that having a Confucius Institute will somehow curry favor with China such that they will be able to raise development dollars in some way or another. What they find is that it doesn’t create leverage for them, but leverage for the Chinese Communist Party, that if the university does something that the Chinese Communist Party disapproves of, they may withdraw Confucius Institute funding.”

Others view the investigations and government warnings more darkly.

“It’s such Red Scare tactics and being fostered by the U.S. government,” said Margaret Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in China’s political economy.

University of Maryland officials refused to make Confucius program officials available for comment. They also declined to allow inspection of financial information about the program or its memorandum of understanding with Hanban, an agency under Beijing’s Education Ministry that funds the Confucius Institute.

Members of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and its staff and special counsel would not comment on the inquiry.

Scrutiny of China’s efforts on college campuses has increased on many fronts. FBI Director Christopher Wray warned universities in February not to be naive about Chinese spies in their midst and said the Confucius Institutes are on his radar. Vice President Mike Pence, in an October speech, accused Beijing of using organizations on campuses to monitor Chinese students for anti-China speech or activities.

Congress added a provision in the Defense Department’s 2019 funding bill that includes a restriction on foreign-language grants to universities that host a Confucius Institute. And a number of lawmakers, notably Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have pushed for U.S. universities to cut ties with Confucius centers. Several schools in Florida and Texas, and most recently the University of Michigan, have moved to do so.

Trump reportedly said at a dinner with business leaders in August that most Chinese students in the United States are spies, alarming many Chinese and faculty at universities that the president would make such a sweeping assertion.

The congressional investigators are also looking at other Confucius Institutes, including two in the Washington area — at George Mason and George Washington universities. The Senate investigation and a separate examination by Congress’ Government Accountability Office reflect the broad shift in U.S. relations with China to one that has become more confrontational in recent years.

Named after the ancient philosopher-sage, the Confucius Institute was conceived by Beijing as a Chinese version of France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe-Institut. The Confucius Institute opened in South Korea in 2004, and later that year China signed its first U.S. agreement with the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park.

Today there are more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world. The average program in the U.S. receives $150,000 to $200,000 a year from China’s Hanban agency, said Gao Qing, director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, a kind of public relations and national support office for the institutes in Washington.

U.S. colleges also contribute offices and money for operating the centers on their campuses.

Some public information is available through reports filed with the Department of Education, which requires colleges and universities to disclose foreign gifts and contracts of $250,000 or more in any given year. But the data can be sketchy, with some schools identifying donors just by country and others avoiding the disclosure threshold by having some of the money transferred to a separate entity like a university foundation.

In recent years the University of Maryland, for example, has not reported annual grants from Hanban to the Department of Education.

Gao said Confucius programs have no agenda other than to promote the study of Chinese language and culture.

“The Confucius Institute program is benefiting the American people, no matter you’re pro-China or anti-China,” he said. “If you want to fight with China, you need people who can speak Chinese. And American education system is so lacking in funding.”

Gauging how much influence the institutes have on campuses is difficult, and seems to vary from campus to campus. At Maryland, professors remember that not long after the Confucius Institute opened, a Confucius staff member questioned whether Taiwan-China relations should be part of a conference, given that it could upset the Chinese Embassy. That discussion went on anyway.

More recently, when the Dalai Lama came to the school in 2013, the Confucius Institute pushed for a speaker from the Chinese Embassy to come at about the same time to offer what turned out to be a counterpoint critical of the traditional leader of Tibetan Buddhists, whom Beijing sees as a threat to China’s rule of Tibet.

“I saw it as a good opportunity for students to hear from both sides,” said Scott Kastner, a professor in the department of government and politics. Maryland’s Confucius program is low-key and doesn’t have much influence on campus one way or the other, he said.

At George Mason, a public university based in Fairfax, Va., financial records and program details obtained through the Virginia Public Records Act show how the Confucius Institute has expanded and been used as a marketing tool and platform for outreach to the community. The University of Maryland cited significant costs and possible delays in responding to a similar records request.

In its first year of operation in 2009, George Mason’s Confucius program received $341,350 from Hanban, which was also responsible for providing teachers and a Confucius Institute co-director from George Mason’s partner university, Beijing Language and Culture University. Since then, annual funding from Hanban has been as low as $139,501 to as much as $635,101, in 2013.

Early on, George Mason’s Confucius Institute offered only non-credit Chinese courses to the community, but in recent years the Confucius program has been involved much more in credit courses. In 2015, the program was transferred from the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts to the Global Strategy Office, strengthening the Confucius Institute’s influence at the university. In 2017, it supported or hosted activities at local schools, museums and galleries in the region, and adult education programs in the community like Encore Learning.

George Mason officials declined to comment on the Senate investigation, but in October extended for five more years its partnership with China on the Confucius Institute.

With increasing scrutiny and political pressure, however, a number of other universities, including Tufts in Massachusetts, are considering whether to continue their Confucius centers.

Some others say they have taken steps in an effort not to compromise academic integrity. In 2010, Hanban made a one-time gift to Stanford University of $4 million for a Confucius Institute, an amount matched by the university to fund an endowed professorship in Chinese culture and to support graduate fellowships, conferences and other programs.

Hanban doesn’t have a say in the choice of scholars or the graduate fellowships, said Richard Saller, Stanford’s dean of humanities and sciences who oversees the university’s Confucius Institute.

“Because the Hanban contribution is an irrevocable gift, they have no leverage to infringe academic freedom at Stanford, nor have they tried,” Saller said in an email. “Indeed, after the gift was made the Dalai Lama participated in a program at Stanford, and we teach courses in Tibetan Buddhism.”

For smaller colleges, however, grants of $100,000 or more from Beijing may be indispensable for sustaining Chinese language programs on campuses.

The Confucius Institute at Savannah State University, a school in Georgia with a total endowment of about $7 million, was criticized last year after its co-director allegedly censored references to Taiwan in conference materials. Directors of the Confucius program and other administrators at Savannah State declined to comment.

For major universities, it’s less about the money from Hanban, welcome as it is. The risk may have more to do with the threat of soured relations and how that could influence the schools’ ability to recruit top-notch talent and the many international students paying full tuition. There are more than 400,000 Chinese students and scholars at U.S. colleges and universities.

China accounts for the largest group of foreign students, and universities have become increasingly dependent on their tuition, especially in states like California where public funding for higher education has fallen precipitously. Ten percent freshmen accepted for the fall 2017 class at the University of California, Berkeley were international students. And as is it for colleges overall, about one-third of its foreign students are from China.

At the University of Southern California, nearly 25 percent of its 45,000 enrolled students are from foreign countries. About half of those are from China.

USC doesn’t host a Confucius Institute, but it does have a Chinese Students and Scholars Association — an organization that mostly helps Chinese students with transportation and getting settled, and sponsoring events like Chinese New Year parties. Pence, in his October speech, characterized these associations as vehicles for Beijing to monitor and alert students when they “stray from the Communist Party line.”

Such broad-brush allegations have stirred concerns among faculty and Chinese students alike at U.S. campuses.

“This kind of rhetoric ratchets up tension and nervousness among people,” said Clayton Dube, who heads USC’s U.S.-China Institute. “People are sensitive to this. I have students from China saying: ‘My parents are asking if I’m being targeted. I’m not, and I’m not worried. But should I be?’”


©2019 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.