The State Department has designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center a “foreign mission
” of China, the latest salvo in the ongoing confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
The designation applies only to the D.C.-based coordinating office, not to the Chinese-government-funded language and cultural centers at colleges. But David R. Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said universities should “take a hard look at what’s going on on their own campuses.”
I spoke with the directors of several campus Confucius Institutes following Thursday’s announcement, and while they still were looking into the foreign-mission designation, all said they did not think it would affect their operations. Gao Qing, executive director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, told
Elizabeth Redden of Inside Higher Ed that the administrative office already provides the U.S. government with much of what would be required to report as a foreign mission, which includes information about personnel, real-estate holdings, funding, and other operations.
“I think it is largely symbolic,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told me. He called the designation a “relatively effortless and cost-free way” for the government to keep up pressure on China.
Daly said the CI U.S. Center meets the requirements of a foreign mission under American law — it’s owned and controlled by a foreign government. “Foreign mission” is a technical definition and doesn’t necessarily imply bad intent. In his remarks, however, Stilwell called Confucius Institutes part of China’s “global propaganda and malign influence campaign.”
(At a press briefing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the State Department’s action was “demonizing and stigmatizing the normal operation of a cooperation project between China and the U.S.”)
The Chinese government started the language centers as part of its effort at soft-power diplomacy, a way to show a different face of China to the world. But as a tool, they’ve become increasingly less effective. Bowing to pressure
from campus critics and elected officials, 40 have closed in recent years, and there are now just 65 on American campuses.
Universities in Germany, India, Sweden, and elsewhere have also shut the centers down. It’s hard to imagine, given the state of Sino-American relations, a college signing an agreement to open a Confucius Institute today.
In the end, investigations into Chinese research ties or restrictions on Chinese student visas are likely to be more consequential for American higher education than the foreign-mission designation, Daly said. Still, it’s one more reminder of the shadow geopolitics casts over classrooms and quads.