The State and Education departments on Wednesday warned school administrators around the country that China’s “Confucius Classrooms” program is a government influence operation targeting young students.
In a letter sent to state commissioners of education, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called the Chinese-government-funded program “a real and increasing threat to U.S. classrooms.”
Ostensibly for a Chinese language and cultural effort, China has sent curricula and Chinese-trained teachers to hundreds of American schools for classes ranging from kindergarten to grade 12, the two secretaries said.
“Confucius Classrooms are in reality an important element of the PRC’s global influence campaign, now reaching tens of thousands of U.S. schoolchildren every day,” they said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.
Many American educators are unaware that the Chinese program is linked to Beijing’s Ministry of Education and is part of a carefully crafted influence program designed to hide facts about the Chinese Communist Party’s abuses, U.S. officials say.
“The presence of an authoritarian slant in curriculum and teaching has never been more concerning, nor more consequential,” Mr. Pompeo and Ms. DeVos stated. “The government of the PRC has suppressed human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong; intensified longstanding repression of ethnic and linguistic minorities in the so-called ‘autonomous regions’ of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere; and is believed to be engaged in the world’s largest internment of a religious minority since the Second World War in the ‘autonomous region’ of Xinjiang.”
Noting that many Chinese-Americans settled in the United States to escape Chinese government control, the secretaries said, “It is troubling to consider that, in some cases, the PRC government may have effectively taken up a physical presence in the halls of their child’s U.S. school.”
Some students in the programs have noted that Chinese instructors avoid topics deemed sensitive by the government in Beijing or critical of China.
“At any grade level, the presence in U.S. classrooms of instructors supported by an authoritarian regime poses risks to our democratic values,” the letter said.
Australia has banned the Confucius Classroom program and replaced it with a less threatening one. Canada also has halted the promotion of communist propaganda through similar programs.
The classroom program is subset of China’s Confucius Institutes, another Beijing funded global cultural program with some 100 institutes on American campuses. A Senate report last year on Chinese influence on the U.S. education system said Chinese teachers in the classroom program had violated visa restrictions.
Mr. Pompeo has said the Trump administration’s goal is to have all of the Confucius Institutes shut down by the end of the year.
Another concern expressed in the letter is that many U.S. schools are funding the Chinese programs. China also has also brought American school administrators to China as part of the program.
“Parents have the right to know what is going on in their children’s classrooms, particularly when controversial or political matters are involved,” said Mr. Pompeo and Ms. DeVos, noting that school administrators should check the program and make sure students’ information is protected and that the arrangements with China are reciprocal and transparent.
The State Department in August designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in the District of Columbia a foreign mission of the Chinese government. The designation did not directly affect the classroom program, but “we seek to shine a light on CIUS and its relationship to Confucius Classrooms operating in U.S. schools,” the letter said.
“We encourage you and the staff at your schools to carefully examine any Confucius Classroom activities in your educational programming,” said Mr. Pompeo and Ms. DeVos, adding that classroom instruction should be free of Chinese influence.
“If you find that the PRC’s activities aim to improperly influence our youngest Americans, we urge you to take action to safeguard your educational environments.”
DHS ON CHINA INFLUENCE THREATS
A Department of Homeland Security threat assessment outlined China’s efforts to sway U.S. policies and influence the U.S. presidential election. The first published Homeland Threat Assessment listed a series actions being taken by Chinese actors to undermine American economic security, steal technology, subvert university research programs and intervene in the elections.
“Ahead of the election, China likely will continue using overt and covert influence operations to denigrate the U.S. presidential administration and its policies and to shape the U.S. domestic information environment in favor of China,” the report said. “China will further use its traditional ‘soft power’ influence tool kit — overt economic measures and lobbying — to promote U.S. policies more aligned with China’s interests.”
The report contradicts statements by Chinese government spokesmen that Beijing does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
In August, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said China’s election interference is significantly greater than threats from Russia and other states. “China is using a massive and sophisticated influence campaign that dwarfs anything that any other country is doing,” Mr. Ratcliffe told Fox Business.
Another influence campaign identified in the report involves the Chinese government’s attempts to shift blame for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beijing is likely “waging disinformation campaigns using overt and covert tactics — including social media trolls — to shift responsibility for the pandemic to other countries, including the United States,” the report said.
Earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the U.S. military of spreading the virus in China.
The report warned that China could increase its influence operations in response to U.S. government criticism of its mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Since August 2019, more than 10,000 suspected fake Twitter accounts have been involved in a coordinated influence campaign with suspected ties to the Chinese government,” the report said.
“Among these are hacked accounts from users around the world that post messaging and disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and other topics of interest to China.”
Beijing also is working to influence state and local governments, often using economic coercion and informal legal or social agreements designed to promote relations. The local officials are being targeted “to advance policies that are in China’s interest during times of strained relations,” the report said.
China invites American officials and business leaders to carefully staged visits in China and offers promises of lucrative investment deals in exchange for their support of Chinese policies.
Many visits were curbed this year because of the pandemic, but the report warned that China will continue to cultivate state and local officials virtually and offer enticements such as bailouts of companies, investments in real estate and discounts on medical supplies.
“When we talk about malign foreign influence, what China’s doing that no one else is doing is, they’re engaging at the local, state and federal level,” Mr. Ratcliffe said.
“Beijing is threatening economic ruin in, for instance, districts where members of Congress are threatening ruin to businesses, factories and jobs, unless members of Congress support pro-China policies or oppose policies of this administration that are tough on China.
“That’s the kind of malign influence that China is exerting on a level that no other country is matching, and it’s something that should concern every American,” he added.
O’BRIEN ON CHINA AND TAIWAN
White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said recently that China’s large-scale naval buildup is impressive but warned that any attack on Taiwan would be difficult to carry out.
During a speech last week at the University of Nevada, Mr. O’Brien said Taipei needs to bolster its defenses to deter a future attack. China’s “massive” naval buildup is aimed at pushing U.S. military forces out of the western Pacific as part of plans for an amphibious assault against Taiwan, he said.
“The problem with that is amphibious landings are notoriously difficult,” Mr. O’Brien said after a speech, noting that the 12-mile English Channel deterred the Germans from invading Britain in World War II.
“You’ve got over 100 miles between Taiwan and China. There are very few landing beaches in Taiwan, so it’s not an easy task, and there’s also a lot of ambiguity there about what the United States would do in response to an attack by China on Taiwan,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien said the Trump administration has given the same advice to the Taiwanese government as it has to Europe: that they cannot spend only 1% of gross domestic product on defense and hope to deter China.
“So the Taiwanese need to undertake the efforts to rebuild their military,” he said.
The Pentagon has been bolstering Taiwan’s defenses with arms sales in recent years, including the sale of new F-16 jet fighters and air-launched missiles capable of reaching targets in China.
Additionally, the Navy has stepped up operations near Taiwan in a show of support.
In recent months, Navy warships have transited the Taiwan Strait more than 15 times in the face of threats and warnings from China not to conduct the “freedom of navigation operations.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.