The State Department is tightening restrictions on Chinese government-backed activities on U.S. soil, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on universities to end the practice of having Confucius Institutes, cultural and language-teaching centers funded and run by Beijing, embedded on their campuses by the end of the year.
As Pompeo detailed new restrictions on Chinese state-sponsored activities in the U.S., the University of North Texas revoked the visas of around 15 several publicly funded students from China.
Pompeo told the Fox Business Network on Sept. 1 that the Chinese government was funding Confucius Institutes and recruiting spies on American university campuses.
"I think everyone’s coming to see the risk associated with them,” Pompeo told the network.
"I think these institutions can see that, and I’m hopeful we will get them all closed out before the end of this year," Pompeo said.
Pompeo last month labeled the center that manages the Confucius Institutes in the United States "an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence" and required it to register as a foreign mission along with several Chinese state media outlets.
He said in an official statement dated Sept. 2: "The Department of State will now require senior [Chinese] diplomats in the United States to receive approval to visit U.S. university campuses and to meet with local government officials."
Cultural events with an audience larger than 50 people hosted by the Chinese embassy or other missions will also require government approval, the statement said.
"The Department of State will also take action to help ensure that all official [Chinese] embassy and consular social media accounts are properly identified as [Chinese] government accounts," it said.
Xia Ming, a professor of political science at New York's City University, said he was once approached by the Chinese embassy to help set up a Confucius Institute at his university, but declined.
He told RFA that the institutes also function as lobbying centers that represent Beijing's viewpoint to university authorities.
"Once they are set up, the Confucius Institutes are then staffed [by Beijing]," Xia said. "In the case of a major political issue, [Beijing] will require the Confucius Institutes to put pressure on university leaders from within."
He said issues regarded as problematic by Beijing could include inviting the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to speak on campus.
He said academics on overseas campuses are often persuaded by personal vested interests not to speak out on matters that show up the Chinese Communist Party in a bad light.
"There are some lecturers in the universities who are effectively acting as a kind of Trojan horse [for Chinese interests] because of their personal vested interests," he said.
Among such vested interests might be research funding sourced from China, the threat of a boycott by Chinese students, or denials of visas needed for research visits to China, academic sources have said via social media.
As the State Department tightened restrictions on Chinese researchers, the University of North Texas (UNT) said it was terminating an exchange program with around 15 publicly funded Chinese researchers.
The Aug. 26 decision effectively ends the researchers' visas, giving them until the end of the month to leave the country.
The university “has come to a decision to end its relationship with visiting scholars,” the letter said. “As a result of this change, access to UNT email, servers, and other materials has been terminated.”
UNT spokesman Jim Berscheidt told the Denton Record-Chronicle that the decision "does not impact any student enrolled and studying at the university." He said the school continues to welcome visiting scholars from around the world, including China.
Privately funded Chinese nationals studying at UNT were unaffected by the decision, Reuters reported.
Cover for spies
According to Xia Ming, China's state security apparatus is known to use visiting scholar programs as cover for sending its spies to U.S. universities.
"I think five or 10 in every hundred of them are personnel assigned by the state security agency, the [People's Liberation Army] general staff, or spies from other agencies or from different provinces and cities to infiltrate [the program]," Xia said.
"The Chinese government knows this very well, and it knows that the U.S. knows it too."
North Texas University politics student Devon Skinner, called on the school to come up with a different way of addressing the issue.
"North Texas University has a reputation for inclusiveness and diversity," Skinner told RFA. "The school’s decision came suddenly without any explanation."
"At such a difficult time, the school should have come up with a better solution," he said.
The University of North Texas hadn't responded to requests for comment from RFA by the time of writing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying hit out at the move as being motivated by xenophobia.
"Out of selfish gains and political motives, some extremist, anti-China forces have been suppressing China's strategic need of development, making numerous lies to stigmatize and demonize Chinese students, and even oppressing Chinese students in the U.S. by abusing judicial power under baseless pretexts," Hua told a news conference in response to the revocation of the students' visas.
She said Chinese parents might hesitate to send their grown children to study in the U.S.
Reported by Rita Cheng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ma Lap-hak and Ho King-man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.