A U.S. senator has asked four Florida universities to end Chinese government-run programs on their campuses.
"There is mounting concern about the Chinese government's increasingly aggressive attempts to use Confucius Institutes ... to influence foreign academic institutions, and critical analysis of China's past history and present policies," Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, wrote last week.
Confucius Institutes are language and cultural programs worldwide that, in the past few years, have been accused of spreading Chinese propaganda.
"The [People's Republic of China] continues its efforts to interfere in multilateral institutions, threaten and intimidate rights defenders and their families, and impose censorship mechanisms on foreign publishers and social media companies," Rubio's letter said.
The institute says it is similar to cultural and language programs such as the British Council or Alliance Francaise around the world, according to its website.
"As China's economy and exchanges with the world have seen rapid growth, there has also been a sharp increase in the world's demands for Chinese learning," according to the Confucius Institute website.
"Benefiting from the U.K., France, Germany and Spain's experience in promoting their national languages, China began its own exploration through establishing non-profit public institutions, which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries."
Several educational institutions have severed ties with Confucius Institutes in their countries, including France, Japan, Germany, Canada and Australia.
Rubio sent his letter to Miami Dade College, the University of North Florida, the University of South Florida, the University of West Florida, and Cypress Bay High School, asking them to sever their relationships with the Confucius Institutes.
The programs are used as a "tool to expand the political influence of the PRC," and the institutes promote self-censorship and "illiberal views of academic freedom," Rubio wrote.
"I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement," he said.
Response to allegations
Qing Gao, the U.S. representative of the Confucius Institute, said he was not surprised by Rubio's assertions.
"It's not the first time," Gao responded in a phone interview with VOA. "It's really an old allegation against this foundation with no factual basis."
Gao denied Rubio's assertions.
"The accusations are not founded," he said. "The Confucius Institute is a trans-cultural language institute and we do not teach history."
Gao said that the Confucius Institute is about global education and is transparent in its partnerships with U.S. universities and schools.
Rubio said that the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University, and McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, have terminated their agreements with the Confucius Institutes. He supported his argument with a statement from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published in 2014.
"Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom," AAUP wrote.
"Their academic activities are under the supervision of Hanban, a Chinese state agency which is chaired by a member of the Politburo and the vice premiere of the People's Republic of China. Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature non-disclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.
"Specifically, North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate."
Gao, the U.S. representative for the Confucius Institutes, denied these accusations. Gao said American host universities decide how to implement and evaluate the Confucius Institute program. He added that the teachers for Confucius Institute are typically local, American hires.
According to Rubio, a 2017 NAS report found that, "to a large extent, universities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Sometimes these concessions are official and in writing; more often they operate as implicit policies."
The Confucius Institutes is headquartered in Beijing. There are more than 100 U.S. universities and several lower schools that partner with the Confucius Institutes, including in Florida, according to the Institutes' website.
The University of West Florida confirmed with VOA that it will end its agreement with the Confucius Institute. A media spokesperson said UWF would not renew the contract when it expires in May. Miami Dade College declined to comment.