BEIJING – A U.S. clampdown on visas for instructors at China's flagship cultural program overseas has incensed Beijing, with state media pouncing on it as an attempt by Washington to frustrate Chinese global ambitions.
A U.S. directive last week said many Chinese instructors had the wrong kind of visa, though it appeared largely resolved by Thursday. The U.S. State Department expressed regret over how the matter was handled and said it was working on a way for teachers to update their status without returning home.
But the commotion it set off has underlined China's sensitivity about the more than 300 Confucius Institutes it has opened globally in less than a decade as a way of spreading its influence abroad.
They primarily give language instruction, but also engage in cultural exchanges and are set up at universities overseas, where they have drawn concerns that they are propaganda machines aimed at stifling academic criticism of China's Communist Party.
The State Department announced May 17 that many teachers at Confucius Institutes on U.S. university campuses would have to switch their visas, because they were teaching kindergarten through 12th grade while holding visas for university-level instructors. There were fears hundreds of them would have to return home, disrupting more than 80 U.S.-based institutes.
Chinese state media reacted swiftly, calling the restrictions an anti-Chinese witchhunt meant to distract Americans from a bleak economic picture in a presidential election year.
"This absurd measure reflects illogical thinking and an immature mentality," said an editorial by state-run People's Daily. "Finding scapegoats, witch hunting and shifting focuses are not the right ways to do things."
Under the headline "U.S. suddenly finds fault with Confucius Institutes," the state-run Global Times said in an article Thursday that Washington was worried about the rising influence of the U.S.-based Confucius Institutes. The paper's editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, wrote on his microblog that the U.S. seemed to be using the visa issue as an excuse to "limit the growth" of the institutes.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said earlier in the week that the government was in emergency consultations with the U.S. over the issue.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the agency was working on ways for the teachers to update their visas while remaining in the U.S. She said Friday that the original directive issued by the U.S. on May 17 had been "sloppy and not complete" and a new directive issued Friday should clarify matters.
"People-to-people relations between the U.S. and China are a very high priority for us," Nuland told a news conference. "We want to get this right. That's why we are fixing this guidance."
The Beijing headquarters for the Confucius Institutes, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as Hanban, said the visa issue appeared to be resolved.
"No need for criticism now that our teachers and volunteers can continue their normal work, and students and parents will not be affected," Hanban spokeswoman Li Lizhen said. "Let's show some friendship."
China has set up 81 Confucius Institutions in collaboration with U.S. colleges since 2004.
They are similar to cultural centers such as France's Alliance Francaise and Germany's Goethe-Institut, but differ in that they make no claim to be independent from their country's government.
Schools in some countries have been wary. Last year, the faculty at Canada's University of Manitoba blocked the opening of an institute, arguing it would legitimize Beijing's propaganda.
"They're nothing more than a propaganda and public relations exercise within the legitimizing framework of a university," Terry Russell, an Asian Studies professor at the university, told the Canadian news magazine Maclean's last June.
Many U.S. universities who host the institute say there's been no interference from the Chinese government, and say the programs add diversity and much-needed language resources for local communities.
"The fear that these teachers would import unacceptable content or pedagogy has proven unfounded," wrote Susan Carvalho, associate provost for international programs at the University of Kentucky in a blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Many of the institutes offer a window to China that might not otherwise be possible, including one at the University of Central Arkansas that has 17 language teachers.
"We've had great success," institute director Zhuang Guo-ou said. "With Wal-Mart headquartered in Arkansas and given the ever-closer economic and cultural ties between China and the United States, it has been beneficial for our students to study the Chinese language."