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US sees 'malign influence' in China-backed school program

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos arrives on the South Lawn for a ceremony for the signing of the Abraham Accords, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos arrives on the South Lawn for a ceremony for the signing of the Abraham Accords, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The Trump administration on Friday encouraged U.S. schools and colleges to rethink their ties to the Confucius Institute, a program that brings Chinese language classes to America but, according to federal officials, also invites a “malign influence” from China.

In letters to universities and state education officials, the State Department and Education Department said the program gives China a foothold on U.S. soil and poses a threat to free speech. Schools are being advised to examine the program's activities and “take action to safeguard your educational environments.”

“The presence of this authoritarian influence on our campuses has never been more concerning, nor more consequential,” officials wrote in the letters, which were signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

More than 60 U.S. universities host Confucius Institute through partnerships with an affiliate of China's Ministry of Education. China provides teachers and textbooks and typically splits the cost with the university. The program also brings Chinese language classes to about 500 elementary and secondary classrooms.

The program has drawn mounting scrutiny from U.S. officials amid ratcheted tensions with China. In August, the State Department labeled the program's national office as a foreign mission of the Chinese Communist Party, which requires the program to submit reports about its operations and spending in the United States.

In Friday's letters, U.S. officials drew attention to China's new national security law in Hong Kong, which critics say curtails free expression and other liberties. The letters cite recent reports that some U.S. college professors are allowing students to opt out of discussions on Chinese politics amid fears that students from Hong Kong or China could be prosecuted at home.

Such fears are “well justified,” officials said, adding that at least one student from China was recently jailed by Chinese authorities over tweets he posted while studying at a U.S. university.

The Confucius Institute U.S. Center did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.