A wide-reaching Chinese cultural exchange program closed its doors after a 14 year run, buckling under federal pressures that threatened the funding of the university’s other language program: Chinese Flagship.
The Confucius Institute, which will no longer have a presence at the university, brought free Chinese language and cultural education to SF State and other K through 12 schools throughout San Francisco. It also sent SF State cinema department students to China for film projects.
Chinese Flagship received money from the Department of Defense (DOD) to help approximately 30 students per year study Mandarin and travel abroad. Confucius Institutes are funded by Hanban, an agency under the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Last year, President Donald Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. The act specifically bars the federal government from giving funds to universities for Chinese language programs that are affiliated with any of the worldwide Confucius Institutes, meaning the DOD funded Flagship could lose funding if SF State continued supporting the Confucius Institute. The law was sparked by a series of U.S. concerns toward the Chinese Government.
Sen. Marco Rubio asked FBI Director Christopher Wray at a U.S. Senate meeting if he was worried that Confucius Institutes were trying to manipulate public opinion and teach a sanitized version of Chinese history that favored the Chinese government.
“We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes,” Wray said in response. “We’ve been watching that development for a while. It’s just one of many tools that they take advantage of.”
SF State and other universities across the nation were given an ultimatum: lose the Confucius Institute or lose Flagship.
The university applied for a waiver, to save its Confucius Institute but was ultimately denied, according to Yenbo Wu, vice president of the Office of International Education.
“Later we learned that all such waiver applications were denied,” Wu said. “Which means to everybody’s understanding, it was never intended to give any waiver.”
Former university president Leslie Wong announced the closure on May 2, 2019.
Sentiments toward protecting the Confucius Institute, caused insecurity for Flagship majors like third-year student Abby Wilson who said, because Wong did not cut ties immediately, he put students at risk.
“This definitely put a lot of pressure on students like me and my classmates who were relying on flagship funding,” Wilson said, adding that it wasn’t very clear what the risks were for students working with the Confucius Institute.
Wilson said the money she received each year from Flagship was supposed to be her golden ticket for the schooling and study abroad required to complete the major.
“We entered Flagship based on that promise,” Wilson said. “And I felt like we were really caught in the crossfire — students were caught in the crossfire of political issues.”
Wu said the Confucius Institute at SF State has not done anything legally or ethically wrong, but that he cannot speak on behalf of other institutes.
“I do know, although, the government is watching those Confucius Institutes because they are funded largely by the Chinese government,” Wu said. “Anything nowadays related to China and the Chinese government is suspicious, it seems.”
The nation-wide closure of Confucius Institutes comes at a time of heightened trade tensions between the two economic powerhouses.
“In this interconnected world — particularly in the relationship between the two largest economies in the world — the mutual understanding, the dialogue, the conversation, the people to people exchange, these things are so so key and important for engagement,” Wu said. “Hopefully [it] creates a smooth future and a peaceful future.”
Wu said there is really no evidence that anyone is trying to sabotage the U.S. and that people might be inclined to see Confucius Institutes as a scheme to advance China’s interests because of the current strain on U.S.-China relations.
The allegations stating China exerted its influence through university programs are not true, according to Wu, because the institute belongs to the university.
“We applied to host a Confucius Institute, so remember this is not the Chinese government imposing something on us, we wanted it,” Wu said.
As part of the university’s Division of International Education, Wu himself reviewed programs and funding proposals that were sent Hanban. When Hanban approved the programs and disbursed funds to SF State, the university would match that amount.
“Imagine those hundreds of thousands of young students in Northern California that got this opportunity to learn Chinese language through our programs, and now suddenly they are gone and for no good reason,” Wu said. “Why do we do this to ourselves?”
Wilson said both Flagship and the Confucius Institute benefited students, but both programs had the motivation to place political pawns in each others’ countries, especially in the cases of students who are in SF State Flagship and UC Berkeley’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs at the same time.
“Of course students being in flagship helps the U.S. government,” Wilson said. “At least they think it has benefits and that they can use students in this way to gain intel and create a beneficial relationship for the U.S., between the U.S. and China.”
Wilson said she felt sorry for the educators within the Confucius Institute, but was relieved for both her peers and herself that Flagship remained untouched.
Former head of the Confucius Institute Jiaxin Xie said that just because the Confucius Institute closed, that doesn’t mean that SF State would stop supporting Chinese cultural programs. The university will still host Chinese Culture Day during International Education Week through Division of International Education funding.
“I feel that this is a challenge and also an opportunity for the university because we had these very reliable very strong resources and very reliable partners, so we can still do our part in promotion of international education through Chinese language culture programs,” Xie said.