NEW YORK -- A bipartisan group of U.S. senators demanded tougher scrutiny of Chinese-funded education programs at American schools and universities during a hearing Thursday, concerned by these groups' ties to Beijing and their influence on American public opinion.
Known as Confucius Institutes, these programs are operated by local schools in partnership a Chinese government agency called Hanban to offer Chinese-language classes and Chinese cultural events.
China has spent $158 million over the past 12 years to support about 100 Confucius Institutes in the U.S., an eight-month investigation by a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee found. Many of the affiliated U.S. schools signed agreements that prevent them from disclosing the extent to which the Chinese government is involved in these programs.
The Chinese Communist Party "cannot have an unchecked voice or promote a select agenda in the United States as part of a larger propaganda or government-directed national campaign," said Sen. Margaret Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire.
The probe widens American scrutiny of China's presence in the country. Washington has repeatedly accused Chinese companies and individuals of economic espionage, an issue that remains unresolved in the ongoing trade talks between the two nations.
The Senate subcommittee recommended requiring that all U.S. schools hosting a Confucius Institute publish their contract and remove clauses giving Beijing authority over these programs.
Program directors and instructors at these institutes are vetted by China's government and told to avoid politically sensitive topics such as Tibet and Taiwan, the subcommittee's report said, adding that Beijing holds veto power over their programming.
Witnesses testifying at the Senate hearing were unable to say definitively whether Confucius Institutes are funded with the intent to influence American public opinion.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democratic member of the subcommittee, said no evidence suggests the presence of espionage efforts within these institutes.
Confucius Institutes are often regarded as China's flagship soft power program, but are increasingly perceived by the U.S. as a threat.
In March 2018, three members of Congress introduced the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, which would require groups such as Confucius Institutes to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
"Requiring organizations like Confucius Institutes to register their activities with the Justice Department and disclose where they get their money is necessary to alert college students to the malign influence of foreign propaganda," said Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and one of the lawmakers who introduced the bill.
Some senators at Thursday's hearing pushed the U.S. State Department for a more aggressive response to China's lack of reciprocity, protesting Beijing's blocking of American cultural outreach efforts.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, suggested that the U.S. respond in kind when faced with unfair practices, such as when an American speaker is not allowed on a Chinese campus.
"It's one thing to protest when they do things we don't approve of," Romney said. "It's another thing to say, 'Well, if you're gonna do that to people we're trying to encourage to be part of your system, we're gonna do the same to yours.'"