Pompeo and DeVos warn about Confucius Institute influence in US classrooms and campuses

The leaders of the State Department and the Education Department joined forces to warn that K-12 classrooms and universities nationwide are being targeted by the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations, including the presence of Confucius Institutes on campus.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sent letters on Friday to the chief state school officers for all 50 states related to grade school and high school education, as well as to the presidents of U.S. colleges and other institutions of higher learning, warning about China’s influence on learning in the United States and specifically calling out Confucius Classrooms and Confucius Institutes.

This comes as the State Department ramps up its critiques of China’s actions (including its coronavirus cover-up, the oppression of the Uyghurs, its power grab in Hong Kong, the military build-up in the South China Sea, China’s potential use of Huawei and apps such as TikTok to spy on the U.S. and its allies, the theft of intellectual property, and more) and as the Education Department cracks down on anonymous foreign money, including large amounts from China, flowing into schools around the country.

“Over the last decade, the authoritarian government of the People’s Republic of China has sent curriculum and PRC-trained teachers into hundreds of U.S. K-12 schools through a program called Confucius Classrooms. Styled as a language and culture program, Confucius Classrooms are in reality an important element of the PRC’s global influence campaign, now reaching tens of thousands of U.S. schoolchildren every day,” the State Department and Education Department wrote to chief state school officers. “It may come as a surprise to many educators that hundreds of U.S. schools make use of a curriculum developed by an authoritarian government and taught by teachers who are vetted, supplied, and paid by that same government, in partnership with American schools and school districts. A review by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs found that approval from an institution affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of Education is generally required when filling teaching positions associated with Confucius Classrooms. This practice by the PRC does not necessarily align with our values or support the safe, equitable, and positive learning environment U.S. students deserve.”

Back in August, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington, D.C., as a “foreign mission” of the Chinese Communist Party, with Pompeo saying at the time that “the United States wants to ensure that students on U.S. campuses have access to Chinese language and cultural offerings free from the manipulation of the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies.” U.S. officials also have slapped the same “foreign missions” label on nine Chinese state-run media outlets this year.

“The PRC’s efforts to control campus dialogue are sometimes supported by a physical campus presence in the form of a Confucius Institute. Today there are Confucius Institutes located on or near the campuses of approximately 60 U.S. colleges and universities. Confucius Institutes are branded as Chinese language and cultural learning centers, but there is increasing evidence that they are also tools of malign PRC influence and dissemination of CCP propaganda on U.S. campuses. The presence of a Confucius Institute, with the Beijing-based funding that comes with it, can provide an institution with financial and other incentives to abstain from criticizing PRC policies, and may pressure the institution’s faculty to censor themselves,” the State Department and Education Department wrote to the heads of dozens of universities. “Although the State Department’s designation of Confucius Institute U.S. Center does not compel any action on the part of your institution, we ask your board and staff to examine carefully all PRC regime-related activities associated with your campus and consider whether student physical safety, academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and appropriate governance and transparency are upheld.”

The Education Department revealed this summer that schools have anonymized $8.4 billion in foreign money and that, since 2010, colleges and universities have “hidden the true source” of at least $600 million from China, $268 million from Qatar, $205 million from Saudi Arabia, and $75 million from Russia. The Education Department announced individual investigations into foreign funding and possible illicit foreign ties (with specific focuses on Chinese influence) at Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Cornell University, Rutgers University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland, Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Texas, Case Western Reserve University, Stanford University, and Fordham University.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Sen. Rob Portman, released a 109-page bipartisan report last November, concluding foreign countries “seek to exploit America’s openness to advance their own national interests” and “the most aggressive of them has been China.” It found China used its Thousand Talents Program to exploit access to U.S. research labs and academic institutions.

The subcommittee released an initial report in February 2019 warning about foreign funding and Chinese influence both in K-12 classrooms and university campuses nationwide, noting that “foreign government spending on U.S. schools is effectively a black hole.” Those reports spurred the Education Department into action.

Multiple members of the Chinese military have been charged by the Justice Department in recent months for concealing their ties to China’s military and allegedly committing visa fraud while acting as students or researchers at U.S. universities. The Justice Department’s China Initiative aims to combat Chinese espionage, and the U.S. has arrested and charged a number of scientists, including Harvard’s chemistry department chairman, Charles Lieber.

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