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Rubio: USF should end ties with Chinese-run Confucius Institute

A teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in St. Petersburg delivers a Chinese lesson in 2008. Three years later, the University of South Florida Confucius Institute announced that Thurgood Marshall would host the first "Confucius Classroom" in Florida, with thousands of dollars in new resources and opportunities for international exchange. On Monday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called on USF and other schools to sever their ties with the institute, saying it was a tool of the Chinese government. Thurgood Marshall already ceased that relationship last year. [Times files | 2008]
Published Feb. 5, 2018

Sen. Marco Rubio is calling on five schools in Florida, including the University of South Florida, to sever their relationships with Chinese government-run Confucius Institutes.

Rubio's office sent a letter to USF and the other schools outlining his concerns with the institutes, which he called a tool of the Chinese state as it increasingly attempts to influence the United States, especially through academia.

"There is mounting concern about the Chinese government's increasingly aggressive attempts to use 'Confucius Institutes' and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China's past history and present policies," Rubio wrote.

The other recipients of Rubio's letter were the University of West Florida, the University of North Florida, Miami-Dade College and Cypress Bay High School.

USF spokesman Adam Freeman said the university received the letter and will respond to Rubio in the near future.

Confucius Institutes are Beijing-run programs that teach Chinese language and culture. More than 100 institutes have taken root in the United States, plus Confucius Classrooms at the K-12 level. They're overseen by the Chinese Ministry of Education, employ teachers who are generally trained in China and are told to teach government-approved versions of history, culture and current events.

Rubio's letter cited a 2011 speech by a former high-ranking Chinese government member who called the institutes "an important contribution toward improving our soft power."

"The 'Confucius' brand has a natural attractiveness," Li Changchun said in the speech, according to Rubio's letter. "Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical."

Still, these partnerships have grown across the country even as academics have sounded alarms about academic freedom and concessions to the Chinese government.

USF was the first university in Florida to establish a Confucius Institute when it partnered with Qingdao University in 2008, according to the USF World website. A brochure on the site says the institute is jointly supported by USF, Qingdao and Hanban, the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The institute provides "academic support" to USF's Chinese language program, USF's site says, and works with language programs at local K-12 schools. It also puts on many cultural performances and lectures.

As for classes at USF, the site says that the institute usually lends two teachers from the partner university to USF's Chinese language program, who "strictly" follow USF's curriculum as they teach about 46 students per semester. Classes have included "Ethnic Minority Cultures in China" and "Business Chinese."

The institute also offers non-credit classes for students of USF's chapter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, who are 50 years or older and are not graded or tested. Recent offerings included "Basic Chinese for Fun" and "Experiencing Chinese Culture through Tea and Handicraft."

A few basic Chinese language courses have been offered for USF employees.

Other academics and advocacy groups have called for an end to the institutions, and some universities have listened.

The University of Chicago let its agreement expire in 2014 after faculty outcry. Penn State quickly followed suit.

Confucius Institutes ignore academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors wrote in a 2014 report.

The academic group found that most agreements setting up the institutes in the U.S. feature nondisclosure clauses and "unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices" of the Chinese government.

"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," the group found.

For instance, reports have found that topics such as human rights and the status of Tibet and Taiwan are off-limits.

Rubio's letter also cited a Politico report from last month called "How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms" as he asked USF and others to reconsider their agreements.

"Given China's aggressive campaign to 'infiltrate' American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad, I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement," Rubio wrote.

Rubio heads the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Pinellas County severed its relationship with the Confucius Institute last year, district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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