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Portman probes government-funded Confucius Institutes

An United States Senate investigation into the Confucius Institute found no wrongdoing by the Chinese government-funded language and culture program, which operates centers at universities across the country -- including Miami.

The investigation, led by Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Delaware Democrat Sen. Tom Carper, called for increased transparency in the funding mechanisms from Hanban -- a semi-governmental agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education that funds the Confucius Institute.

The results of the investigation, which lasted for eight months, were revealed in a Feb. 28 hearing in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

"This bipartisan report documents the stunning lack of transparency and reciprocity from China in how Confucius Institutes operate inside the United States," Portman said in his opening statement at the hearing. "As China has expanded Confucius Institutes here in the U.S., it has systematically shut down key U.S. State Department public diplomacy efforts on Chinese college campuses."

Though the investigation originally aimed to determine whether the Chinese government has attempted to spread propaganda through Confucius Institutes, Portman and Carper ultimately claimed the Chinese government was curtailing "academic freedom" by funding these departments throughout the United States.

"That level of access can stifle academic freedom and provide students and others exposed to Confucius Institute programming with an incomplete picture of Chinese government actions and policies that run counter to U.S. interests at home and abroad," Portman said in a separate statement after the investigation concluded.

Miami's Assistant Provost of Global Initiatives, Cheryl Young, said she was surprised by the senators' allegations.

"Our experience with the Confucius Institute, at least over the last 12 years, is not what these negative things being reported in the Senate are," Young told The Miami Student.

Young said the Miami University Confucius Institute (MUCI) is a valuable resource for students interested in engaging in Chinese culture and for helping bridge cultural gaps.

MUCI proposes its events to Hanban, whose officials then determine which will receive funding.

Universities receiving more than $250,000 from Hanban are legally required to document the contributions as foreign gifts. Young said that while Miami hasn't reached the legal threshold since 2009, the department still voluntarily reports its receipts.

In 2018, MUCI received $30,000, which is much lower than in previous years. In 2017, for example, the institute received $155,242 from Hanban.

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Young said Hanban has never denied funding to any event that Miami has proposed.

"They don't tell us how to host anything, or where," Young said. "We work with the [Chinese] partner university, but it isn't a one-way relationship. They don't tell us what to do."

Young noted that there are many diversity-related events on campus affiliated with MUCI that are not funded or approved by Hanban in any way.

Chen Zhao, the director of MUCI, said in an interview that the institute serves many functions within the Miami community and helps create a well-rounded student experience.

"We offer courses for non-credit in conversational Chinese, and our workshops are becoming more popular with students - both domestic and international students," Zhao said.

Because MUCI is integrated closely with Global Initiatives, Zhao said, its operations serve the university's priorities before its obligations to Hanban.

The Senate hearing concluded with a call to establish similar American cultural institutes in China and to increase transparency in the funding reporting process.

"I appreciate the commitments that have been made by the Department of Education today and the Department of State to step up what is the first step in this, which is to provide that transparency and information that is required by law," Portman said.