US to treat Chinese cultural organization as an arm of Beijing’s government

The US State Department designated a Chinese cultural and educational institution as a foreign mission, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Thursday, in the latest move by Washington against Beijing.

The Confucius Institute US Center (CIUS) says it promotes a network of institutes that provide programming focused Chinese language and culture. They are funded by the Chinese government. The State Department said there are around 500 Confucius classrooms, which are K-12, in the US, which “are affiliated with a university-based Confucius Institute.” The Department said they are tracking 75 Confucius Institutes in the US — 65 of which are actively operating on university campuses, the rest which are standalone.

Under the designation, the CIUS will be required to register with the State Department and provide information on its personnel and property in the US and obtain permission for future property acquisition. Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Missions Clifton Seagroves told reporters Thursday that CIUS would also be “required to regularly provide a set of reports concerning their funding, personnel and operations at the Confucius Institutes in classrooms around the United States, as well as provide us with information concerning their curriculum and training materials that they provide.”

The move follows designations of a number of Chinese media outlets in the US as foreign missions.

“Today, the Department of State designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of the PRC, recognizing CIUS for what it is: an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms,” Pompeo said in a statement. “Confucius Institutes are funded by the PRC and part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus.”

“The goal of these actions is simple: to ensure that American educators and school administrators can make informed choices about whether these CCP-backed programs should be allowed to continue, and if so, in what fashion. Universities around the country and around the world are examining the Confucius Institutes’ curriculum and the scope of Beijing’s influence in their education systems,” he said. “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.”

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell told reporters Thursday that the designation was “not going after Confucian centers, per se,” but rather “the organization that actually manages, supports and funds Confucius centers in the US.”

In a statement on its website, the Confucius Institute US Center said it is “more than happy to respond to the State Department’s information requests” but it disagrees with the designation and hopes “to clear up this fundamental misunderstanding.”

“CIUS has no influence, let alone ‘malign’ influence, over how universities run and manage their own Confucius Institute language programs,” the organization said. “We look forward to sitting down with the Secretary to help him understand what is really happening which may help stop the many myths that are still being circulated about CIUS and Confucius Institutes.”

The institutes have faced scrutiny from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. A 2019 bipartisan report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations stated that “the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools, including its funding, staff, and all programming” and that “has veto authority over events and speakers.”

Washington and Beijing have been engaged in an escalating tit for tat over the past several months, with the Trump administration taking a series of measures they say are meant to rebuke the Chinese government for human and civil rights abuses and deter influence operations. Last week, the administration sanctioned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 others for their role in crackdowns on political freedom in the region. In late July, it ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to shut down; in response, Beijing ordered the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu.

This story has been updated with a statement from the Confucius Institute US Center.