US accelerates decoupling by designating Confucius Institutes a 'foreign mission'

By GT staff reporters Source: Global Times Published: 2020/8/14 12:34:16

Students from Beijing and Medgar Evers College Preparatory School of New York take a group photo after a culture exchange event in New York, the United States, Feb 2, 2018.File photo:Xinhua 

The US Department of State on Thursday designated the Confucius Institute US Center (CIUS), which manages Confucius Institutes co-established with American schools, as a Chinese "foreign mission," which analysts said was not a surprising move as the Trump administration has been politicizing cultural and people-to-people exchanges to accelerate a decoupling from China. 

The latest US move is just another blow to bilateral cultural exchanges and non-official bonds, which should help offset political tensions in times of diplomatic difficulty but are less capable of doing so due to US moves, analysts said, noting that the space for cooperation will continue shrinking.

In a press release, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described CIUS as an apparatus controlled and funded by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to increase its global influence. 

CIUS on Friday said in a statement that it disagrees with its designation and hopes to clear up this fundamental misunderstanding. The Department of State, in its letter informing the institute of its designation, correctly acknowledged that CIUS is not a diplomatic organization and that its employees are not government officials or representatives. But Pompeo's press release criticized CIUS as advancing a malignant "influence campaign." The press release indicates the Department of State is disconnected from the truth, CIUS said.

In contrast to Department of State's stance, US government's accountability office had issued a report on how the center operates in the country with US partner schools that control Confucius Institutes, and how American students benefit from language education and cultural exchange opportunities from CIUS.  

Analysts noted that the Trump administration's animosity toward CIUS and its combative rhetoric directed at the CPC revealed its Cold War mentality. They said the US is obviously painting a cultural organization with ideological elements to slander it, serving the decoupling agenda. 

Infographic:Global Times 

Such slander began long ago, and related reports have flooded US and other Western media. Government actions can be traced back to mid-2018 when President Donald Trump signed an act to stop funding universities with a Confucius Institute. In January 2020, the University of Maryland decided to suspend its Confucius Institute and in May, two political groups from US campuses called for the closure of all Confucius Institutes in the country. 

Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations under the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Friday that the move in the education and culture sectors showed the Trump administration's determination to see an all-round decoupling, using politics and national security as excuses to thwart people-to-people exchanges, making cooperation in insensitive areas more difficult. 

The designation will also decrease average Americans' understanding of China, which is already low given biased politicians and media in the US, Li said.

A specific countermeasure to the CIUS designation is not yet clear, but Chinese branches of US universities may face increased scrutiny, he said.

An American university student from North Carolina who undertook a language program and interned in China in 2017 told the Global Times that the culture shock was immense and it was only when she lived in China and spoke with Chinese people that she realized how distorted, or at least partially distorted, reports on China were. 

Li warned that shutting communication channels means lost opportunities to decrease misunderstanding among Americans. Public misunderstanding and the animosity of political elites will create a vicious cycle. 

Prior to the CIUS designation, the US Department of State had also labeled major Chinese media as "foreign missions." As a countermeasure, China ordered US media outlets AP, UPI, CBS and NPR to declare information in written form about their operations, including their staff and finances in China. 

Sun Taiyi, an assistant professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, told the Global Times that the designation is part of an overall decoupling strategy, and announcements of new US actions from time to time are also aimed at maintaining anti-China sentiment in the media to divert attention from domestic problems such as COVID-19 and an economic slump. 

Decoupling measures are likely to continue regardless of the result of the US election. If Biden wins, he might use more rational measures to avoid derailing bilateral relations, but the overall US China strategy will not change, Sun said.  

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