Chinese spend thousands persuading U.S. schools to promote their language, culture

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In 2005, Chinese officials were trying to open a Confucius Institute at the University of Oklahoma and invited Paul Bell Jr., the then-College of Arts and Sciences dean, to fly to a conference in Beijing as ???one of our special guests.???

???I am glad to write you to express my appreciation of your support for Chinese Learning Program in your university,??? Weiping Zha, director of the education office at the Chinese Consulate in Houston, wrote to Bell, offering to pay travel expenses for the conference. Xu Lin, director of the Chinese office of foreign language (Hanban) also sent what appears to be a form letter expressing similar sentiments.

The Chinese paid more than $2,000 to fly Bell to China and an unknown amount more for lodging, records obtained by under state open records laws show.

A year later, as he led to the effort to establish the institute on campus, the consulate again paid most of the travel expenses ??? also thousands of dollars ??? for Bell to fly to China and discuss implementation of the institute, records show. Hanban covered airfare, accommodations, meals and tour expenses, the invitation noted.

In the past decade, the Chinese have opened hundreds of the institutes and classrooms in universities, high schools and even elementary schools in the United States and around the world in an attempt to teach Chinese language, culture and to increase cultural understanding. But, as reported in October, a growing number of academics caution the institutes are propaganda arms of the Chinese government.

Along with language and culture, the institutes teach the positive aspects of China but clamp down on any attempts to discuss problems ??? such as Tibet and Taiwan ??? and human rights violations ??? such as Falun Gong ??? in the world???s largest country, professors critical of the program and the American Association of University Professors contend.

University of Chicago anthropology professor Marshall Sahlins, who recently helped persuade his school to end its relationship with CI, said the travel and perks are just one of the economic tactics China is using to pressure U.S. schools, including threatening to pull the Chinese accreditation of some schools that receive a lot of tuition from Chinese students.

???This is an economic problem that the administration might be and have been suborned by perks,??? Sahlins said. ???I think in general there???s a very person-to-person way of dealing with this thing, and that doesn???t involve faculty government despite statutes that might apply.???

But Mary Ann Hansen, co-director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, said she hasn???t seen the pressure and censorship Sahlins and others are describing, though she did note, under Chinese law, One China includes Taiwan and Tibet.

???I???d like to put a good spin on this,??? she said. ???It???s not a nefarious operation, but we???re really trying to build a multi-cultural world.???

Hansen pointed out that many countries, including the United States, and western Europe pay for visiting foreign delegations. But when asked her about how much China spends on these trips, she responded by email only that ???China generously supports cultural exchange in a way similar to Fulbright.???

Last year, sent records requests to nearly two dozen universities with CI programs on campus to determine what payments and reimbursements the Chinese government made to school officials. Most schools either had no records of payments or any possible records had been destroyed because the institutes were started years earlier.

But the University of Oklahoma, the University of Oregon, and the Minnesota Department of Education provided documentation of Chinese officials paying for trips for faculty and even a top state official.

Bell, reached at his OU office Wednesday, agreed to discuss the trip Thursday morning but then emailed that he had fallen ill. ???I can type but can???t carry on a conversation,??? he emailed after declined to provide written questions. ???Maybe I can help you with a later story.???

Despite leaving the dean???s job, Bell continues to serve as board chairman of the OU Confucius Institute and received a ???2012 Individual Performance Excellence Award from Confucius Institute Headquarters, Beijing, China,??? according to the OU website.

A University of Oklahoma spokesman asked for written questions and only issued a statement after insisted on an interview on the subject. OU has said it???s reconsidering its relationship with CI.

???Given the importance of China, we feel it is important to offer our students the chance to study Chinese language and culture,??? wrote Kyle Harper, OU senior vice provost, not addressing whether school officials were influenced by the trips.  ???During his tenure as Dean of Arts and Sciences, Paul Bell played an instrumental role in recognizing the importance of China and building OU???s offerings in Chinese language and culture.???

In Minnesota, a 2006 letter from Hong Yang, director of the University of Minnesota???s China Center, to then-state education commissioner Alice Seagren invites her to lead a delegation of superintendents and principals to China. The trip would be ???partially sponsored by the Office of Education at the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago,??? the letter says, adding that Yang was part of a 2005 delegation to China that included then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

???I am pleased that (Pawlenty???s) mission has sponsored so many new initiatives in Minnesota and I am thrilled that he supports making Mandarin Chinese language education a priority for Minnesota,??? Yang wrote to Seagren. ???Your participation in this delegation would strengthen our relationship with the Ministry of Education in China and will help us to build solid exchanges at the K-12 level.???

State officials said the Chinese didn???t fun Pawlenty???s trip.

Seagren did not return calls to her home seeking comment, and the education department did not produce detailed records of her China trip.

At the University of Oregon, Chinese officials have paid more than $31,000 since 2010 for professors and CI staffers to travel, host meals and even buy supplies, records obtained under state open records act show.

Ina Asim, executive director of CI at the University of Oregon, returned an email saying she couldn???t discuss the founding of the Institute because she wasn???t there.

???(C)ould you please let me know whether you???d like to talk about current activities of the UO Confucius Institute,??? she wrote. ???In case you are interested in the process that led to the founding of the CI, as your request to our Public Records Office seems to indicate, I can???t be of great assistance since I was not involved in the process of establishing the UO CI and its initial phase.??? responded that we would like to talk to Asim about current payments, which include $9,200 to her for travel and other expenses. She emailed some basic information but did not respond to email and phone requests for an interview.

Hansen said some of the controversy might stem from CI growing so fast, with about 400 Institutes worldwide and 100 in the United States, as well as hundreds more classrooms in primary and secondary schools.

???From my perspective, I???ve only seen it as a positive,??? she said. ???I don???t think we can understand China without learning the language and culture. It???s intended to be a good program, to bring about a harmonious world.???

But Sahlins said China is using CI to exert its influence over the rest of the world.

???My issue is academic freedom in the U.S. and elsewhere, particularly academic issues of free inquiry,??? he said. ???I think they???re trying to develop political influence ??? real political influence ??? over all the countries of the world that they???re involved with.???