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China 60, U.S. 0: Culture centers in other’s country

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

Members of Congress have urged China, which has set up 60 cultural centers in the United States, to allow more than the four American centers it says can operate in China — a limit analysts attribute to Beijing's fear that those centers would promote human rights.

Obama administration officials say they are aware of congressional concerns about the imbalance and the disparity in cultural and political influence it can bring. Even if the Chinese restrictions were eased, however, the State Department has no funds to match what China is spending on those projects, the officials say.

The Chinese centers, known as Confucius institutes, are housed by U.S. universities or other schools and operate as partnerships. Their heads usually are American faculty members, not necessarily of Chinese heritage, and they specialize in language training, arts, educational and cultural programs.

No U.S. cultural centers currently exist in China — the American Embassy in Beijing has a cultural section — and the planned institutions will be stand-alone entities funded entirely by the U.S. government, a State Department official said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the issue during a hearing with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February.

"The Chinese, according to our records, have now established 60 Confucius centers here in the United States, but they are permitting only four of our centers to be built in China," Mr. Lugar told Mrs. Clinton. "So I call this to your attention for some potential negotiations with [our] Chinese friends, as we try to extend this idea of diplomacy centers, which I think is important."

Mr. Lugar suggested that the administration is resigned to the restrictions, noting that its 2011 budget request has asked for funds for just "eight to 10 American centers of public diplomacy" around the world, but "it's not clear where those would be located."

Mrs. Clinton responded that the administration is "raising the issue of reciprocity with Chinese officials," though she made clear a change in the numbers is unlikely anytime soon.

"On the Confucius centers, the Chinese government provides each center with $1 million to launch, plus they cover operating expenses that exceed $200,000 per year," she said. "We don't have that kind of money in the budget, so we are limited in the numbers that we can do."

The State Department official said the administration has asked for $14.5 million to open public diplomacy centers, but no decisions have been made about where they will be located or how many of them will be in China. He acknowledged that part of their mission will be to help explain and promote U.S. policies, though he used the phrase "engaging with foreign publics."

The heads of several Confucius institutes questioned Mrs. Clinton's numbers.

Joan Brzezinski, director of the institute in Minneapolis, said the Chinese launching grant was about $100,000. She did not immediately have the number for last year's operating costs covered by Beijing, but she said it was less than what Mrs. Clinton suggested.

Susan Pertel Jain, executive director of the institute in Los Angeles, said it did not receive nearly as much as $1 million to start, though she did not have specific numbers, either.

Ms. Jain also questioned comparing the Confucius institutes to U.S. public diplomacy centers because of their different funding models.

While an arm of the Chinese government, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, also knows as Hanban, has to approve every project it funds, all ideas come from Ms. Jain and her colleagues at the institute, which is housed by the University of California at Los Angeles, she added.

"It's been very much a partnership," she said.

Ms. Brzezinski said that, in theory, the University of Minnesota and Hanban should share her center's operating expenses, but in reality, more than half of the money comes from China. Still, the Chinese exercise "no oversight on expenditures," she said.Analysts acknowledged the differences between the Chinese and American centers but also pointed out similarities.

"The U.S. centers are much more explicitly associated with the U.S. government, but on the other hand, they both have the same function, which is public diplomacy and outreach, and trying to present a version of the respective country," said Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Cheng said China's concerns about prospective U.S. centers most likely have to do with human rights, which are part of Washington's outreach around the world.

He also noted that it is almost impossible for Washington to find a Chinese university to partner with that is not at least partially controlled by the Chinese government, which is not a problem in the United States.

There is an asymmetry between U.S. and Chinese funding because Beijing is better at "putting its money where its mouth is," Mr. Cheng said.

"What are our priorities? There will be a number of opportunities for President Obama to raise the issue with President Hu [Jintao] next week" during the global nuclear security summit Mr. Obama is hosting, Mr. Cheng said.

However, he expressed doubt the administration will risk new tensions with China, given its decision to delay a report on its currency policies not to anger Mr. Hu before his trip to Washington. U.S. officials have long called on Beijing to stop artificially keeping the yuan's value down, which has been good for Chinese exports but bad for American imports.

"We have to push for greater access for our public diplomacy centers, and that requires resolve and negotiating," Mr. Cheng said.