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The Senate approves a bill to tighten controls on China-funded Confucius Institutes on US university campuses

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The Senate unanimously passed a law on Thursday – without a roll-call vote – to increase the supervision of Confucius Institutes, China-funded cultural centers that operate on university campuses.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Confucius Institutes are “government-funded outposts that provide instruction in the Chinese language and culture.” However, some politicians, particularly Republicans, have accused them of spreading propaganda.

“Confucius Institutes are under the control of the Chinese Communist Party except for their names,” said Senator John Kennedy, R-La., Who introduced the bill. “This bill would give colleges and universities full control over their resident Confucius institutes and restore freedom of thought to their locations.”

In 2020, Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Introduced a similar bill. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., One of the co-sponsors of the law, said, “For too long, the Chinese communist government has tried to infiltrate American universities through the disguise of the government-run Confucius Institute.”

S-590 Bill, approved by the Senate on Thursday, would cut federal funding for universities and colleges that have Confucius Institutes on campus that do not comply with the new oversight rules and regulations.

The invoice will next be sent to the house for review.

In her January Senate confirmation hearing, recently re-elected U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield came under fire for a 2019 speech she gave at a Confucius Institute in which she was China seemed gentle towards her.

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said during the hearing that Thomas-Greenfield was overly optimistic about China’s relations with African countries, while Beijing’s human rights record was not tough enough.

Thomas-Greenfield later said the speech was a mistake and failed to express her views on China, and she vowed to limit Beijing’s influence over UN General Assembly sessions.

The case against the institutions has gained momentum in recent years.

Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a 2019 report that US universities have given the Chinese government access that can “stifle academic freedom” and provide an “incomplete picture of the Chinese government’s policies and strategies that run counter to US “domestic and international interests. “

The bipartisan report followed an investigation by the Standing Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Portman, of how American colleges and universities manage Confucius Institutes at their sites.

The highest-ranking member of the panel, Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., Said in the report that although the Senate “has uncovered any evidence that these institutes are a center for Chinese espionage or other illegal activities,” it “is critical “is that we should be vigilant in combating foreign efforts to sway American public opinion. “

Congressional annual defense spending package for 2019 severely curtailed the autonomy of these China-funded cultural centers by threatening to withhold funding for language programs from their host universities, Human Rights Watch reported.

Human Rights Watch said nearly 22 Confucius Institutes have closed since the law was passed.

The University of Missouri closed its Confucius Institute last year after a notice from the U.S. Department of State for Education and Cultural Affairs regarding visa concerns while the Trump administration attempted to close the institutions.

Changes to the State Department’s guidelines for housing facilities would have made maintenance too costly, a university provost said at the time.

Long before the legislature sounded the alarm, university professors signaled problems with the institutes.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published a report in 2014 recommending that colleges dig deeper into classroom curricula and agendas.

“Confucius Institutes act as the arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom,” the statement said, which also highlighted a lack of transparency. “Most of the agreements establishing Confucius Institutes contain nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the Chinese government’s political goals and practices.”

– CNBC’s Lynne Pate contributed to this report.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the bill was approved on Thursday.

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Katherine Clark