Curriculum

Chinese spend thousands persuading US schools to promote their language, culture

This Oct. 3, 2014 file photo shows tourists at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

This Oct. 3, 2014 file photo shows tourists at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.  (Reuters)

In 2005, Chinese officials were trying to open a Confucius Institute at the University of Oklahoma and invited Paul Bell Jr., the then-College of Arts and Sciences dean, to fly to a conference in Beijing as “one of our special guests.”

The effort was part of a long-running campaign to persuade U.S. schools to promote Chinese culture. In the past decade, the Chinese have opened hundreds of the institutes and classrooms in universities, high schools and even elementary schools in the United States and around the world in an attempt to teach Chinese language, culture and to increase cultural understanding. 

But, as Watchdog.org reported in October, a growing number of academics caution the institutes are propaganda arms of the Chinese government. 

The Chinese paid more than $2,000 to fly Bell to China and an unknown amount more for lodging, records obtained by Watchdog.org under state open records laws show. 

“I am glad to write you to express my appreciation of your support for Chinese Learning Program in your university,” Weiping Zha, director of the education office at the Chinese Consulate in Houston, wrote to Bell, offering to pay travel expenses for the conference. Xu Lin, director of the Chinese office of foreign language (Hanban) also sent what appears to be a form letter expressing similar sentiments. 

A year later, as Bell led the effort to establish the institute on campus, the consulate again paid most of the travel expenses — also thousands of dollars — for Bell to fly to China and discuss implementation of the institute, records show. Hanban covered airfare, accommodations, meals and tour expenses, the invitation noted.

Along with language and culture, the institutes teach the positive aspects of China. But they clamp down on any attempts to discuss problems — such as Tibet and Taiwan — and human rights violations — such as Falun Gong — in the world’s largest country, professors critical of the program and the American Association of University Professors contend.

University of Chicago anthropology professor Marshall Sahlins, who recently helped persuade his school to end its relationship with CI, said the travel and perks are just one of the economic tactics China is using to pressure U.S. schools, including threatening to pull the Chinese accreditation of some schools that receive a lot of tuition from Chinese students.

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