Why GOP Politicians Are Talking About K-12 Chinese Language and Culture Classes

By Libby Stanford — October 12, 2023 6 min read
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Several U.S. schools for years have offered Chinese language and culture classes through partnerships with institutes at nearby universities that receive funding from the Chinese government.

To some politicians, that means K-12 schools are susceptible to “covert influence of foreign governments, including the Chinese Communist Party.”

U.S. Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla., said as much during a Sept. 19 congressional hearing entitled “Academic Freedom Under Attack: Loosening the CCP’s Grip on America’s Classrooms.”

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers claimed that students in hundreds of schools are subjected to pro-Chinese Communist Party propaganda through a program called Confucius Classrooms, which brings Chinese language and culture classes into K-12 schools. Confucius Classrooms are affiliated with Confucius Institute programs based at a handful, but diminishing number, of universities.

The hearing was inspired by a report from the parents’ rights organization Parents Defending Education called “Little Red Classrooms: China’s Infiltration of American K-12 Schools.”

“Schools across the United States have allowed the CCP to establish itself in their halls under the guise of Confucius Classrooms,” said Bean, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s early childhood, elementary, and secondary education subcommittee. “But when you pull back the curtain on these cultural exchange centers, you find a CCP-backed agenda that undermines the principles upon which our education system is built.”

Bean isn’t the only conservative politician in Congress or the country to raise concerns about the programs.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law in May prohibiting public schools from entering into any agreement with or accepting any grants from “a foreign country of concern,” citing fears over the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on American schools. Last month, he barred four private schools that he claimed had “direct ties to the Chinese Communist Party” from receiving funds through the state’s private school voucher program, which allows families to use public money private school tuition. One of them is controlled by a Hong Kong-based investment firm owned by Chinese citizens, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

DeSantis then brought up the Chinese Communist Party again at the most recent Republican presidential primary debate on Sept. 27, pledging to “go after the cultural power [China has] in our country.

“As governor of Florida, I banned the CCP from buying land in our state,” he said. “We should do that all across these United States. We shouldn’t have them in our universities. We shouldn’t have Confucius Institutes.”

However, the fears of propaganda and threats to national security are largely unfounded. Some worry that politicians’ high-profile of targeting of the Confucius Institute program could stigmatize other Chinese language and culture programs and get in the way of Americans learning more about and fostering ties with the world’s most populous nation and America’s geopolitical rival.

Reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ nonpartisan investigative arm, have shown that Confucius Institutes often require academic freedom for affiliated scholars through contract provisions and that American institute directors had full control over the programs.

While a Senate report released in August 2019 raised concerns that Chinese government funding could threaten academic freedom at Confucius Institutes, over 130 affiliated instructors interviewed for the report said they don’t feel pressure to avoid certain topics or themes that might offend the Chinese government. The report also found no evidence that the institutes are a cover for Chinese espionage or other illegal activities, but it did suggest that the institutes become more transparent.

“This idea that somehow our students are going to get brainwashed is rather ridiculous,” said Jamie Horsley, a researcher and senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.

Still, the vast majority of Confucius Institutes have closed in recent years. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed a defense spending bill that also prohibited universities from using federal funding for Confucius Institute-provided Chinese language programs, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Since then, the number of Confucius Institutes at American universities has dwindled from over 100 to around 10, according to the National Association of Scholars, a conservative education advocacy organization that tracks the presence of Confucius Institutes in the United States.

What are Confucius Classrooms?

Confucius Classrooms are the local K-12 programs that operate in partnership with university Confucius Institutes, bringing Chinese language and culture classes and other cultural exchange activities to K-12 schools. As with Confucius Institutes, the K-12 programs have dwindled in recent years.

In its report, Parents Defending Education found that seven school districts have active Confucius Classroom programs, but the organization says 143 districts have “active or inactive” ties to Chinese language programs and the People’s Republic of China through grants, sister school partnerships, and other programs.

At the September U.S. House hearing, Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters said Tulsa Public Schools had an active partnership with the Confucius Classrooms program. But the school district, Oklahoma’s largest, had canceled its contract at the end of August and informed the state Department of Education, which Walters leads, days before he testified before House lawmakers, public radio station KOSU reported.

Confucius Classrooms have agreements with local districts detailing the extent of the program in local schools. A contract published by Parents Defending Education between the Confucius Institute at Western Kentucky University and the Jefferson County Board of Education to establish a Confucius Classroom at Field Elementary School in Louisville outlined the following activities: conducting a Chinese language teaching program, training local Chinese language instructors, organizing exchanges between U.S. and Chinese elementary and secondary school students, and conducting activities related to Chinese language and culture.

During the House hearing, Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, said the programs lack transparency and that some threaten national security because of their proximity to American military bases.

“As parents, we deserve to know whether hostile nations are pumping propaganda into our children’s heads,” Neily said.

The value of Chinese-language programs

Confucius Classrooms and programs like it can be a positive addition to U.S. schools, Horsley said.

China and the United States have a complex relationship, and opportunities for American students to learn from Chinese teachers can help bridge divides between the two countries, she said.

“What is in the U.S. interest is that we understand China so we know what we’re dealing with,” Horsley said. “From my point of view, that means understanding a much more nuanced view of what’s happening in China and what China is. … Being able to understand China includes being able to speak Chinese, and what better way to learn Chinese for purposes of learning about China than to learn it from native Chinese [teachers]?”

Some worry that the high-profile criticism of Confucius Classrooms could have a ripple effect, stigmatizing other Chinese language and culture programs and perpetuating hate and discrimination against Asian people in the United States.

“As we take on U.S.-China tensions, it’s important to recognize that the Asian American community has a long history of being perceived as perpetual foreigners,” said Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum. “Seen as perpetual foreigners, we too often are perceived as outsiders and make for convenient scapegoats as economic or national security threats. Therefore, it becomes essential that we do not allow U.S. tensions with a foreign Asian country to translate into an overreaction by the federal government or within our education system.”

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