The Trump administration has prompted US universities to reconsider partnerships with cultural and language-tuition institutes run and partially funded by the Chinese Communist Party.

The US government in letters to higher education institutes and state education officials warned that Confucius Institutes, which are administered by a branch of China’s State Council, give Beijing a “foothold” to exert political influence on American campuses and threaten freedom of speech.

“The presence of this authoritarian influence on our campuses has never been more concerning, nor more consequential,” the letters, signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, said, according to reports.

Confucius Institutes are present at more than 60 US universities. They provide Mandarin-language training, cultural activities and other events to predominantly Chinese students.

The letters reportedly stated that cooperation agreements with Confucius Institutes permit them to employ only teachers vetted and employed by the Chinese government, who “can be expected to avoid discussing China’s treatment of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities”.

“Confucius Institutes are branded as Chinese-language and cultural learning centres, but there is increasing evidence that they are also tools of malign [CCP] influence and dissemination of CCP propaganda on US campuses,” the letters said.

While the letters do not explicitly ask universities to sever ties with Confucius Institute centres, they suggest that such relationships could cause problems.

Officials noted that many universities have created “excellent Chinese-language and culture programmes” without input from the Chinese state.

So far, at least 39 US universities have announced plans to terminate arrangements allowing Confucius Institute centres to operate, according to the National Association of Scholars, a non-profit.

Edward Slade, a corporate advisor to education companies, said in a LinkedIn post that closures of Confucius centres will create “a major gap in [the] teaching and testing of Mandarin” – which private providers could fill.

Slade said: “There are six million HSK [Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, Chinese proficiency] tests per year mostly administered by Confucius centres, and probably 100 million Mandarin learners globally. A big opportunity is there for an independent Mandarin tuition and testing group.”

Date published: 15 October 2020

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