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By Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON – Senate investigators warn that China has opened government-run centers in more than 100 US university campuses, injecting more than $ 158 million into Confucius Institutes, which spread Chinese influence while remaining largely unmonitored by the US government.
The Chinese government "controls almost every aspect" of the institutes, including funding, staffing and programming, according to a new bipartite report presented by the Senate Subcommittee on Inquiries. Their proliferation has also raised concerns about espionage and generated a lot of interest from the FBI, including its counterintelligence division.
The warning comes amid concerns that China's growing global footprint, fueled by massive investments in areas ranging from foreign roads and ports to 5G wireless technology, poses a risk to security and counterintelligence for the United States and other countries.
President Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping and announced on Sunday that he would delay tariff increases, as Xi plans to travel to his resort of Mar-a-Lago for a summit to resolve the trade war. China is also playing a central role for Trump, which is organizing a second nuclear summit this week in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose country is heavily dependent on Chinese trade.
The Confucius Institutes, which present themselves as linguistic and cultural centers, began appearing in the United States in 2006. The 110 or so institutes that now exist in 44 US states are among more than 500 in the world, all of which are controlled by Beijing by through his Ministry of Education. . China usually invests between $ 100,000 and $ 200,000 for the construction of a center, and then about $ 100,000 more per year to operate it, Senate investigators said.
Institutes are so controversial that at least 10 US schools have announced plans to close them in recent months. In Canada, the province of New Brunswick has closed its only institute and British legislators have called for new ones in the United Kingdom.
For American campuses, the lure has been hard to resist. With little or no investment, schools receive an infusion of instructors, language courses and cultural programs from a region where many American students are eager to learn more.
However, the problem is that these investments are subject to important conditions.
Senate investigators found that discussions on sensitive political issues such as Taiwan were banned in Confucius institutes and that in some schools, teachers' compliance with Chinese law could extend censorship to US soil. .
Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who chairs the Senate committee, said American schools allow the Chinese government to have sufficient access to "stifle academic freedom" and provide a "blackboard". incomplete actions and policies of the Chinese government to US interests at home and abroad. "
"In the absence of complete transparency regarding the functioning of Confucius Institutes and total reciprocity for US cultural outreach efforts on university campuses in China, Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States." Portman said.
Although Delaware Sen. Democrat Senator Tom Carper stated that the Senate had revealed "no evidence that these institutes were a Chinese spy center or any other illegal activist," they were scrutinized by the FBI.
FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate last year that law enforcement agencies were cautious and, in some cases, conducting investigations. And Bill Priestab, the FBI's head of counterintelligence, warned last month that the institutes are "ultimately beholden to the Chinese government."
"It has happened that these institutes seem to have nullified the freedom of expression," Priestab told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI Deputy Director of Counter-Intelligence and Law Enforcement Analyst at NBC News, said US schools need to be aware of the risks of building relationships with the institutes Confucius, "because there is clearly a possibility of exploitation by the Chinese intelligence services, you see the kind of money thrown on the financing. "
"Universities and communities who think they are getting something for nothing need to understand that this is not the way it works," says Figliuzzi. "There is a program here and the Chinese government is using other platforms to penetrate our society and shape and influence our thinking and position vis-à-vis China."
Portman and Carper's investigation criticizes both the State Department and the Department of Education for insufficient control of the institutes and for not requiring the Chinese government to have equal access to the US cultural institutes operating there.
Under federal law, American schools receiving a foreign gift worth more than $ 250,000 a year must report it to the Department of Education. But Senate investigators found that 70% of schools that received this amount or more from China had not reported it correctly, with no apparent consequences.
And the state department does not keep track of the number of J-1 educational visas that were given to Confucius Institute teachers, the report says, making it difficult to track the use of these visas.
Investigators found that the State Department had only conducted field visits to two Confucius Institutes – both in 2018 – and found visa violations, such as fraudulent paperwork or theft. Misuse of search visas. The State Department has announced to the Senate that it plans to make four visits to institutes this year.
In a school visited by the State Department, officials found evidence of disappointment, according to the report, indicating that the co-director of the institute had repeated before their arrival to put into practice what they would say about their research at the institute. The report does not identify the school.
The State Department stated that its power to control the activities of the Confucius Institutes was limited, but that, as far as possible, "we closely monitor and collaborate with the sponsors of the designated universities to ensure respect for all the relevant regulations of the Exchange Visitors' Program.
The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment, although officials from both agencies were expected to testify on the matter before the Senate committee on Thursday. The Chinese Embassy in Washington also did not respond to an email asking for comments.
The Confucius Institute US Center, a non-profit organization based in Washington that says it aims to support more than 100 institutes in the United States, said it has not seen the Senate report yet, but said the Confucius Institutes are "academic programs for effective learning. "
"These are individual college learning centers that teach Chinese language and culture run by and in the universities themselves," the group said in a statement.