Undergraduate student Moe Lewis, left, shows her watercolor painting of peony leaves at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., May 2, 2018.
Undergraduate student Moe Lewis, left, shows her watercolor painting of peony leaves at a traditional Chinese painting class at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., May 2, 2018.

WASHINGTON - China has provided more than $158 million to U.S. schools for Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture, U.S. Senate investigators said Wednesday, releasing a report saying the centers have acted as tightly controlled propaganda arms for Beijing and should be changed or shut down.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spent eight months investigating the Confucius Institutes, which were created in 2004 to promote Chinese language and culture at schools and universities around the world.

But the centers have been criticized, particularly in the United States, for promoting the views of the Chinese Communist Party, assertions denied by both the institutes and the government.

China’s government said Feb. 24 that it plans to “optimize” the spread of the institutes and they will remain a key part of government policy.

The new Senate report said China’s government controls nearly every aspect of the institutes in the United States, including their funding, staff and programming. It also can veto any program or speaker.

The report was released amid a costly trade war between Washington and Beijing, which has seen President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials accuse the Chinese of using students as spies, stealing intellectual property and a range of other dirty tricks.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer testif
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer testifies before a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on U.S.-China trade on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 27, 2019.

Earlier Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told a House of Representatives committee that the United States will need to maintain the threat of imposing tariffs on Chinese goods for years even if a deal is struck to end the current dispute.

No evidence of spying

The Senate investigators did not find evidence that staff at the Confucius Institutes were involved in espionage or other activity that would need to be reported to law enforcement. But they did find many staff had obtained the wrong type of visa and that 70 percent of U.S. colleges and universities that received at least $250,000 per year from the Chinese government did not report it as required by the Department of Education.

The report’s recommendations included requiring that U.S. schools publish online all contracts with foreign governments, ensure hiring confirms to their rules, not Beijing’s, and that the State Department review all visas and demand reciprocal treatment in China.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, center, walks to a meeti
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, center, walks to a meeting with Republican Senate leadership at the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. on Capitol Hill, Feb. 11, 2019, in Washington.

“Absent full transparency regarding how Confucius Institutes operate and full reciprocity for U.S. cultural outreach efforts on U.S. campuses in China, Confucius Institutes should not continue in the United States,” Senator Rob Portman, the subcommittee’s Republican chairman, said in a statement.

Subcommittee investigators said they were considering legislation to ensure the centers complied with their recommendations. The subcommittee will hold a hearing on China’s influence on U.S. education on Thursday.

Officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

High schools, primary schools also funded

Besides Confucius Institutes at 100 U.S. schools, Beijing also funds more than 500 “Confucius Classrooms” that teach Chinese language and culture in primary and high schools.

The investigators said some of the U.S. universities’ contracts with the Chinese government include non-disclosure provisions and require adherence to U.S. and Chinese law. They faulted the U.S. Department of Education for doing too little oversight.

Officials at the Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report also said the U.S. State Department had tried to set up a program in China to promote U.S. culture, but that China had insisted on controlling the program to such an extent that the department stopped funding it in October.

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