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Mike Pompeo and Betsy DeVos, Joint Letter to Commissioners of Education about China's Confucius Classrooms Program, October 14, 2020

The U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Secretary of Education argue that China's Confucius Classrooms are an influence effort and should be constrained.

October 14, 2020
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Dear Chief State School Officer,  

The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education both support and defend the United States Constitution and the democratic values it embodies.  We place top priority on advancing the interests of the U.S. people, including safety and equal access to education for America’s children.  

U.S. schools are an invaluable partner in that mission, and it is because of these shared priorities that we write to you about a real and increasing threat to U.S. classrooms.  Over the last decade, the authoritarian government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has sent curriculum and PRC-trained teachers into hundreds of U.S. K-12 schools through a program called Confucius Classrooms.  Styled as a language and culture program, 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.     

It may come as a surprise to many educators that hundreds of U.S. schools make use of a curriculum developed by an authoritarian government and taught by teachers who are vetted, supplied, and paid by that same government, in partnership with American schools and school districts.  A review by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs found that approval from an institution affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of Education is generally required when filling teaching positions associated with Confucius Classrooms.  This practice by the PRC does not necessarily align with our values or support the safe, equitable, and positive learning environment U.S. students deserve.

The presence of an authoritarian slant in curriculum and teaching has never been more concerning, nor more consequential.  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.  The PRC’s repression of human rights is discussed in greater detail in the enclosed recent State Department letter to the governing boards of U.S. institutions of higher education.    

Many Chinese-Americans have come to the United States to be able to express and practice their faith or political views free of government interference and to obtain an intellectually stimulating education for their children.  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.  While teachers in Confucius Classrooms may not appear to be engaged in ideological propaganda, those vetted and paid by the PRC can be expected to avoid discussing China’s treatment of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities.  Indeed, some Confucius Classroom students have described their teachers’ repeated avoidance of topics perceived to be “sensitive” to or critical of the PRC.  Particularly at the high school level, this creates a troubling deficit of information in a setting supposedly focused on the study of Chinese language and culture.  At any grade level, the presence in U.S. classrooms of instructors supported by an authoritarian regime poses risks to our democratic values.  

The Confucius Classroom program is global, and its authoritarian slant has not gone unnoticed in other democratic nations.   In Australia, the state government of New South Wales has ended the Confucius Classroom presence in its public schools, replacing it with Chinese language and culture programming funded and managed by Australians.  The Canadian province of New Brunswick recently cancelled its contract with the Confucius Institute over concerns about communist propaganda and freedom of expression.  In Toronto, Canada, a proposal for the Confucius program to enter its public school district was rejected because of concerns over restrictive conditions for teachers from the PRC, who serve under PRC contracts expressly limiting their freedom of expression.  A violation of this provision could endanger those teachers’ own safety and that of their family members still living in the PRC.  

This concern about the welfare of Confucius Classroom teachers extends to those in U.S. schools. Visiting teachers from the PRC are entitled to the protections of our Constitution, but often serve under arrangements that incorporate Chinese law, some provisions of which are inconsistent with  American constitutional principles.  Any arrangement that suppresses the open exchange of ideas in our classrooms or elsewhere is inconsistent with our Constitution and the United States’ longstanding support for freedom of inquiry at home and abroad. 

More concerning is that some American schools, and thus taxpayers, are supporting parts of these programs, and the PRC is spending considerable sums to woo U.S. school leaders.  In recent summers, a number of U.S. school administrators connected with the Confucius program have been brought to Beijing to be feted by PRC government officials.     

To be clear: these American educators are pursuing important values; they are striving for excellence in education and global competitiveness for their students.  But the best way to pursue our values is to partner with those who share and respect those values.  

Parents have the right to know what is going on in their children’s classrooms, particularly when controversial or political matters are involved.  At a minimum, school administrators should ensure that they are fully aware of the source of curriculum and teachers.  They should also carefully manage students’ personally protected information if exploring activities that would involve the PRC government.  In too many cases, the exact arrangements between U.S. schools and their PRC partners lack transparency and reciprocity, and do not fully take into account these considerations.  

All of these issues are avoidable.  Many U.S. schools have built excellent Chinese language and culture programs without the involvement of the PRC government.  The teachers and students in these programs enjoy the freedoms rightly due every person on U.S. soil.  

On August 13, the State Department designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS) in Washington, D.C., as a foreign mission of the PRC.  While the CIUS designation does not directly affect Confucius Classrooms at schools around the country, we seek to shine a light on CIUS and its relationship to Confucius Classrooms operating in U.S. schools.  This designation will provide much-needed transparency by requiring CIUS to provide information about its operations to the State Department, including regarding its relationship with individual Confucius Classrooms across the United States.  As a result, U.S. stakeholders, including primary and secondary schools, will be able to make more informed choices about PRC government influence being exerted on their communities.     

While the State Department’s designation of CIUS does not compel any action on your part, we encourage you and the staff at your schools to carefully examine any Confucius Classroom activities in your educational programming.  In so doing, please ensure that our academic freedoms are being modeled and respected, whether the terms under which Confucius Classroom teachers work are consistent with U.S. law and values, and that instruction in these classrooms is free of foreign influence and interference.  

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.  While Americans may differ on many issues, threats to our freedoms unite us all.  We look forward to working together to uphold our values and advance the goal of educational excellence for the next generation of Americans.  

Sincerely,

Betsy DeVos
Secretary of Education

Michael R. Pompeo
Secretary of State

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