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US colleges risk losing federal funds if they take a dime from China

President Trump's trade war takes an unexpected victim in the shape of popular Confucius Institutes which dot US college campuses.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   20-09-2019

Students at the Community College of Denver take a Chinese brush painting class as part of the Confucius Institute international network of classes

American universities are caught between a rock and a hard place: if they take even a dime from China to operate a Chinese language and culture center, they will potentially lose their federal funding from the US Defense Department.

The stipulation, written into the John S McCain National Defense Authorization Act, has induced a number of colleges to recently close centers — known as Confucius Institutes — which are sponsored by Hanban, an organization directly under China’s Ministry of Education.

Unfortunately, the US-China trade war has hardened into a political and ideological battle that runs far deeper than tariffs. It has now started impacting long-standing educational and cultural initiatives. Although trade talks between Washington and Beijing have resumed after a two-month hiatus, any agreement the world’s largest economies carve out is expected to be a superficial fix.

China’s Communist Party is unlikely to budge on US demands to fundamentally change the way it runs the economy, while the US won’t backtrack on labeling Chinese companies, and institutes national security threats. The latest move to clamp down on Chinese funding comes as critics worry that China uses the Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese Communist Party propaganda on American college campuses.

But not everyone agrees. Students learning Chinese say an irrational “air of suspicion” in the United States is jeopardizing rich cultural exchanges.

“I studied Chinese and went on a month-long summer trip to Shanghai which was revelatory,” said Martin Palmer, a freshman at San Diego State University, who is studying Chinese. “It helped me to appreciate how different people have their own dress, elegance, art, traditions and way of life.”

According to the “Los Angeles Times,” that cultural exchange is now in jeopardy. The paper revealed that under federal pressure, San Francisco State University has abruptly ended a 14-year collaboration with China that supported Chinese language classes, cultural events, teacher training and summer camps for thousands of other Bay Area students, educators and community members.

“Since 2005, San Francisco State had partnered with Beijing Normal University to host a collaborative Confucius Institute on the Bay Area campus. The $390,000 annual costs were split between SFSU and Hanban,” reported the newspaper.

But US officials are taking aim at Confucius Institutes and other Chinese government-supported programs, warning that American universities have unwittingly exposed themselves to “undue influence” or even espionage efforts from America’s major economic rival.

The “LA Times” reported that after “difficult discussions,” San Francisco State chose to keep its federally funded program, called Chinese Flagship, which serves about 30 students each year with a $475,000 Defense Department grant for intensive language instruction, cultural training and opportunities for study and internships in China.

San Francisco State officials said they chose the Flagship program over the Confucius Institute because it offered more advanced training for their students — but expressed frustration that they could not keep both.All 13 universities that hosted both programs have decided to close their Confucius Institutes, including San Diego State.

Established in 2004, Confucius Institutes aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries throughout the world.

Since 2006, Hanban has given more than $158 million to more than 100 US schools for Confucius Institutes, according to a 2019 Senate subcommittee staff report.

“There is zero, I can tell you, political content in the textbooks used by the Hanban,” David Shambaugh, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, who sits on the faculty oversight board for his school’s Confucius Institute, told NBC News.

“Thus the accusations against Confucius Institutes for spreading communist propaganda is hogwash,” declared Shambaugh.

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