The United States announced Thursday that it would require the center that runs the Confucius Institute to register as a foreign mission of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, alleging the group's Chinese language courses are part of a widespread campaign of influence and propaganda in the U.S.
In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington as "an entity advancing Beijing's global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K-12 classrooms" and said that the center "has taken advantage of America's openness."
The announcement comes of the heels of another spat over the fate of popular video app TikTok. Over the past several months, the U.S. and China have exchanged blows over the coronavirus pandemic, civil liberties in Hong Kong, sovereignty infringement in the South China Sea and trade.
U.S. officials have also warned of increasing attempts by Chinese agents to steal trade and military secrets, especially at universities.
David Stilwell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, emphasized that the Institute would not be banned.
"We're not kicking them out," he said in a briefing. "We're just highlighting the fact that these folks do work for the Ministry of Education of the [Chinese] Communist Party."
In May, a bipartisan group of U.S. college campus political organizations - the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America - issued an open letter calling to close all Confucius Institutes in the United States, citing China's human rights record with particular emphasis on the government crackdown in Hong Kong.
In January, however, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) expressed a different view.
"We do support the type of work done by Confucius Institutes in terms of building libraries, funding Chinese language classes and promoting cultural exchanges," AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella told VOA. "Our experience has not uncovered any evidence of interference by the Chinese government or infringements on academic freedom.
"China is our greatest collaborator for scientific research, and over-surveillance will have a negative impact on knowledge generation," she said.
Organizations designated as foreign missions must submit reports to the U.S. government about its funding, personnel, curriculum and activities that occur in the U.S.
About 500 K-12 classrooms and 65 campus chapters run by the institute may be affected if the new designation requires shifts in organizational procedure or programming.
Academic exchanges would still occur as usual, Stilwell said, but urged campuses to take a "hard look" at their ties to Chinese-based programs.
Pompeo said he wanted to ensure that American schools "can make informed choices about whether these CCP (Chinese Communist Party)-backed programs should be allowed to continue, and if so, in what fashion."
Earlier this year, the U.S. government declared that four Chinese media outlets would be added to the "foreign missions" list because of their relationship to the Chinese government.
According to Stilwell, the U.S. government is open to restoring good relations with Asian economic giant but expressed frustration that their concerns appear to go unheeded.
"We are having discussions and we're emphasizing to them that they need to address our fundamental concerns, and we will take steps if they do not," Stilwell said.