Briefing With Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell and Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Missions Clifton C. Seagroves On Actions Taken to Counter PRC Influence Operations
MR BROWN: Thank you, and good morning everyone. Thanks for joining us for this briefing on the designation of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, or CIUS, as a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China. Today we are recognizing CIUS for what it is: an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K through 12 classrooms.
Today’s call is being conducted on the record. Joining us to brief you today are Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell, and our Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Clifton C. Seagroves.
As a reminder, the information discussed on this call is embargoed until the call is completed, and as usual a transcript will be posted on state.gov later today. For the sake of efficiency, if you would like to go ahead and get into the question queue, just dial 1 then 0. I’ll now hand it over to Assistant Secretary Stilwell, and then we’ll hear from Acting Director Seagroves. Go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Hey, thank you for that. And again, thanks to all of you for calling in as we lay out the – both rationale and the mechanics of what we’re trying to accomplish here.
Let me just start off with an anecdote from my past. In 1988, I took my first trip to the PRC and I studied the Chinese language immersion. And just down the street from where I went to school was a place called Purple Bamboo Park, Zizhuyuan, and they had the English language corner. My Chinese friends told me to go over there and help Chinese college students work through their language training. It was open, the exchange was free, and it was beneficial for me and for them.
The interesting thing is the conversation in large part dealt with the idea of democracy, and understanding – and for those who could speak English, understanding the mechanics of democracy. And they wanted that. They wanted to be able to have a voice in their government and have some say-so. And a year later you saw what came of that in the Tiananmen Square incident.
But the point is that on both sides of the Pacific, it is necessary and useful to have these positive exchanges. These exchanges happen at the academic level, but they happen without the intrusion of governments that politicize and try to – and shape the discussion in a way that violates the concept of just free speech and academic freedom.
And so of all the activities that have been highlighted, PRC activity in the U.S. that’s been highlighted, Confucius Institute’s been out there for a long time. People have understood for a very long that these things have been going on, and this designation is long overdue.
Just to be clear on this, we’re designating the Confucius Institute of the United States Center. This is the organization that actually manages, supports, and funds Confucius Centers in the U.S. This is not going after Confucius Centers per se, although we would ask that universities, again, take a hard look at what those institutes are doing on their campuses and then decide for themselves if this is something that supports and advances academic freedom and our democratic values or not.
And so this whole process, as you’ve heard me say before, reflects a larger effort by the U.S. Government and the Trump administration to get at true reciprocity and transparency. For too long we’ve turned a blind eye to these activities with the hope that they would understand the beauty of free and open and – these exchanges. But if you look hard enough at what they are doing in our country with something as innocuous-seeming as language, you will understand why we are going to have to – we take these actions.
Reciprocity – we have these – similar activity, and American universities have these activities on their campuses in China, but the trouble is – they’re called American Corners – is for maybe a year now you can’t get to them. They make access impossible for Chinese students to go talk to Americans about these things. And so again, this reciprocal – supposedly reciprocal relationship is wildly out of balance. Our goal is to get the other side to understand the importance of transparency and openness and sharing, but until that happens we’re going to take steps to defend ourselves.
So this process, as of yesterday does – it enables transparency. By designating the Confucius Institutes of the U.S., we ask them to tell us what they’re doing here in the U.S. We’re not closing it, we’re simply designating them as what they are, as foreign missions. This process that we’ve done so far with media and others has significantly improved visibility into what the PRC state media is doing – this is in terms of what we did last fall, and then in January – it gives us better visibility into what the state media is doing in the U.S. These so-called journalists do in fact work for the Beijing’s ministry of propaganda. We permit them to operate in the U.S., but they can’t masquerade as legitimate journalists.
In the same way, these – activity of Confucius Institutes who work for the Hanban, who works for the Communist Party, cannot masquerade as benign academic activities institutions. They are what they are. We do support Chinese language, culture, and study in the U.S., but it has to be transparent and it can’t include coercion.
We asked universities to take a hard look at what’s going on on their own campuses and address them factually and objectively to understand: Does this advance the concept of academic freedom? Does it advance the understanding of China today, both in terms of the culture but also the government? And does it advance freedom of speech and all those other things?
So we’re working with Department of Education and others on that process. It’s helping our American schools and institutes of higher education deal with this, and also looking for other opportunities for language training and instruction. We think at this point it’s even more important that Americans study Chinese language, understand Chinese culture, and work to establish a truly reciprocal relationship on both sides of the Pacific. There are lots of opportunities. Those opportunities existed before Confucius Institutes. When I studied Chinese, there was no such thing as Confucius Institutes, so we don’t need these to provide sufficient language opportunities here in the U.S. There are other – there are options that we will explore.
I’ll leave it at that, and subject to your questions, but Clif Seagroves has some points as well.
MR SEAGROVES: Thank you. Just to give a little bit more background about the action itself that we’ve taken. So after careful review, we have designated CIUS headquarters as a foreign mission for purposes of the Foreign Missions Act. This action will improve the Department of State’s understanding of the manner in which the Chinese Government uses its network of Confucius Institutes and classrooms in the United States to influence American scholars. Section 4302-A of the Foreign Missions Act describes several bases on which the entity can be considered a foreign mission, including being substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government. There is no question that CIUS meets this standard.
Entities designated as foreign missions must adhere to terms and conditions established by my office aimed at regulating the manner in which they receive certain benefits in the United States. As a result, we are now requiring CIUS to provide Department of State with basic information concerning their personnel rosters, real estate holdings, as well as the need to obtain our prior approval to make any future acquisitions of real property in the United States. Further, CIUS is also now required to regularly provide a set of reports concerning their funding of personnel and operations at the Confucius Institutes and classrooms around the United States, as well as to provide us with information concerning their curriculum and training materials that they provide to such organizations.
MR BROWN: Okay. With that, we’ll take questions. For our first question, can we go to the line of Kate O’Keeffe with Wall Street Journal?
QUESTION: Thank you so much. I wanted to get a little more clarity on how you expect this action could impact the actual classrooms of these Confucius Institutes. Do you expect anything concrete to change in that classroom setting? And also with – the Chinese Government has announced they’re basically rebranding these things and moving them under a nongovernmental organization. So does that – like how do you think about dealing with that type of situation? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Hey, Kate, thanks. I really appreciate your question. To your – the last question, you’re right, they did change the names, but the activity hasn’t changed. And I would remind those that aren’t watching this very closely that China basically – effectively banned all nongovernment organizations in China in their – what we think of as nongovernment and brought them under – you have to have a government sponsor in the PRC. And so they become GONGOs, right – government-organized nongovernment organizations. That’s so communist. So that’s the first part.
As far as it affects the classrooms, again, this has to do with the management and funding here in D.C., which is where this organization resides. And so the activities at the actual universities are not necessarily impacted except for the point that we’re making is that foot-stomping that what these folks are doing has things – has other attributes other than studying Chinese. There is a – maybe a propagandizing, messaging aspect to it that people want – we just want them to be aware, let people go into this with their eyes open and make their own choices.
Clif may have some more details on the classrooms themselves. Over.
MR SEAGROVES: I don’t have anything to add to that, sir.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our next question, let’s go to the line of Han Chen with Radio Free Asia.
QUESTION: Hello, sir. This is – actually, Kate already asked the question, so I’d like to yield my question. Thank you.
MR BROWN: Okay. Great. Let’s go to the line of Jack Robinson with Fox News now.
QUESTION: Thank you. So in addition to the new DHS guidelines when it comes to education and international students as well as the visa changes in July from the State Department, do you have any more developments, any news on some foreign exchange students? Because there are many who remain in limbo about their plans for the 2020 and 2021 school year.
ASSISTANT SECETARY STILWELL: Yeah, thanks for that question. As far as the details on that, I’d have to refer you to the Department of Education and, as you mentioned, DHS as far as how the visas are going to work, how online study is going to work, and all the rest.
I mean, one point to take from that, though, is the sheer numbers of students that do study in the U.S. It’s – for me, it was truly impressive. For the Chinese, it’s something in the neighborhood of 350,000 students. And then you add in the secondary students, so the kids who are going to boarding school here in high school, and that adds about another 100,000. So the American education enterprise is very vibrant, active, and desirable.
How we work through the corona part, it’s a – I know it’s going to be a temporary fix. We’re going to – and we’re going to have to deal with this for the next year or so, and obviously looking forward to getting back to where we were in all things, not just in education. Over.
MR BROWN: Okay. For our next question, let’s go to the line of Jae-Dong Yu with Dong-A Ilbo Daily.
QUESTION: Yeah, hello. This question is a little bit off the track, but President Trump said in a radio interview whether South Korea and Japan should seek nuclear weapons in the face of China’s aggressiveness will be a key topic of discussion. Do you think this is a feasible option for South Korea and other East Asian countries? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: That’s a interesting change of pace since we’re talking about education, but the – yeah, I’m not going to go into unrelated questions on this. I would refer you to the White House on that.
MR BROWN: Yeah, let’s please try to keep the questions focused on the issue we are discussing today. I would appreciate that.
Next, if we could go to the line of Ed Wong, New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Can you give us some statistics on how many Confucius Institutes – and separately, classrooms – are in the U.S. and how many have closed down in recent years? Because I know there’s been a change and there’s been some pressure on – from various parties for campuses to close some down.
And then the second question is: You mentioned that campuses should be wary of them because of – you used the word “coercion.” And I’m curious, like how – like, from your research, what are some examples of that coercion? And I also wanted to see how that would be different than –like for example, some of us who studied Chinese in the ’90s and the 2000s in – on U.S. campuses here used Chinese propaganda – Chinese textbooks from the mainland that had lots of propaganda in it touting the Communist Party and Deng Xiaoping and various things. And I don’t feel that we were indoctrinated in communist propaganda. If anything, it made us sort of see the way that the party thinks or puts out its messaging.
So I’m just wondering what you see – this coercion or whatever propaganda efforts you see as being different than what we all went through when we studied Chinese. I’m sure you had some of those experiences of textbooks, David, when you were studying, too.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Hey, Ed, thanks. I’ll take that one. I’ll let Cliff take the first question on numbers, but on the second question, we got a fact sheet coming out that gives a long list of examples of how these supposed language study activities are in fact forcing decisions by university administrators, by teachers, and by students.
A couple examples: University of California San Diego chose to invite the Dalai Lama to give a commencement address at graduation, and they actively pressured the administration to not do that, to not invite him. Another example is a speaker coming to an event who had in her bio the fact that she had studied in Taiwan. That was edited out before that was published.
And so there – I – look at the Cambridge University press. This is not strictly related to it, but to your larger question about the impact of influence ops like this. Cambridge University press was told to delete 250 articles that the Chinese Communist Party found offensive, and therefore, with the threat of economic reprisals, had them do. And they, in fact, did until the academic world said how about academic freedom, and then they reversed their decision, with no impact, by the way. The Chinese did not follow through on that threat as far as I could tell.
And so to your last question, yeah, I studied some great textbooks, especially the ones – as I mentioned, I studied in Beijing in 1988. The fingerprints of the Culture Revolution were still drying at that point and it was comical. And so our point here isn’t that the American people aren’t smart enough to recognize propaganda, although I would say that in the recent past, as you look at MFA tweets and other things, they are becoming more adept at mixing truth with false – lies with truth.
A digression: I’m working very hard to get – since we’re talking academics, I’m trying to get schools to teach critical thinking more. That makes us better suited to defining what’s propaganda and what’s fact. It also helps us understand social media and how to deal with social media better with its many negative and down sides.
But overall, yeah, we do trust that folks can make these decisions. But we – we’re not kicking them out. We’re just highlighting the fact that these folks do, in fact, work for the ministry of education of the Communist Party and letting them deal with it in their own American way. Over.
And Cliff, can you talk about the classroom number?
MR SEAGROVES: Thank you. I do not have that exact number with me at the moment, that – of how many have closed in the U.S. in the past several years, but I will tell you where we got that information is from reporting possibly from one of you on this call. There’s a series of articles about this, and that’s been our primary source for tracking that information. I – but I do apologize, I just don’t have that number with me at the moment.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Hey, I do have that, and I’ll present you the evidence. Let’s see. There were – there are around 500 Confucius classrooms; these are K through 12. Each is affiliated with a university-based Confucius Institute. Right now, we’re tracking 75 Confucius Institutes operating in the U.S. Sixty-five are active on U.S. university campuses, the rest functioning as standalone organizations. There – this is a three-page – two-page fact sheet that we’ll make sure that everybody gets, but it has all that data on it. Over.
MR BROWN: Great, thanks. Next question, let’s go to Robert Delaney with the South China Morning Post.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. It was actually answered. I was – I wanted to hear the numbers that you’ve just given out. And I just wanted to make sure that fact sheet that you’re talking about, is that coming through – will you just e-mail that to everyone on the call?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: We will make sure it is distributed broadly. We’re working on the medium as we speak.
MR BROWN: Yeah, we’ll probably post it to our – I imagine we’ll post it to our website.
Okay, next question. Let’s go to the line of Carol Morello.
QUESTION: Well, thank you. I’m sorry I don’t know the answer to this, but are there any American institutions or universities that have any kind of facilities in China and – or is there any kind of American institution that would be a logical target for retaliation by the Chinese? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I – because we’re an open and free society, I can’t tell you exactly what universities are doing what in China. What I do know, though, is access to those is strictly limited in the current environment, that they are all having difficulty operating, generally speaking. And as far as the Chinese taking reciprocal measures or reprisals, that’s always in the cards. We trust you, the open and free press, to identify that. Again, all we’re doing here is designating them for what they are. This is a Confucian rectification of names, as many of you understand. We’re simply calling these things what they are. These are arms of the Chinese Communist Party. What – how you would respond to that or punish an American activity in China, I don’t know, but if they were doing the same level of research that we did, they would discover these folks really are operating independently with the intent of increasing knowledge and fostering education. Over.
MR BROWN: Great. Next question, let’s go to Natalie Liu.
QUESTION: Liu, right, Natalie Liu from Voice of America. Could you elaborate on the closing of the American Corner in China in the last year, as well as if there are any measures put in place to address potential questions from American institutions that currently host or have something to do with the CIs? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: So the year I cited was not accurate. It’s been over time, over a longer period of time. But there’s been examples – so for the first thing, American Corners, as I understand it, are basically American academic institutions in partnership with the embassy that helps them get established throughout the PRC. The ones I know about are the ones in Beijing.
But there are other activities where we invite Chinese people in to understand the U.S. better, and they are being affected both in not being allowed access where we ask for the key and they can’t find the key, or for folks trying to get into our activities in American consulates or the embassy; Peoples Armed Police guards who do protect the diplomatic activities are overly checking IDs and stuff. They’re discouraging people from going in. So there is this slow cutting off of the Chinese people from what are non-nefarious, what are – what they are. These are activities – this is trying to understand what the U.S. is, how we think, things they can’t get past the firewall and all those things, and the government is actively cutting them off, to their detriment, frankly. Over.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next question, let’s go to the line of Joel Gehrke.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I wondered: Are you expecting anything in the way of retaliation from the Chinese side, and whether directly on something like campuses, as my colleague asked about, or elsewhere?
And a little more broadly, what do you make of some of the recent statements we’ve seen from senior Chinese diplomats talking about their interest in sitting down with the U.S. to talk and keep things from spiraling out of control, as one put it this week? But in the wake of the meeting in Hawaii and with the other – some of the other aggressive actions that have been taken, is there room for some kind of dialogue that was not previously available, and if so, does – do things like this decision today jeopardize that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: As far as reprisals, they’ve already happened, unfortunately, right. Telling NGOs you can’t operate in the PRC anymore without a sponsor, and then you don’t get a sponsor, therefore you’re no longer able to function; the inability for our American Centers, American Corners, to operate – those things have already happened. I’m not sure how much more you could do. And the fact is, like you said, I don’t know what you would reprise in this case since all we’re doing is calling a spade a spade.
On the second question as far as – yeah, you saw Foreign Minister Le’s comment yesterday about we need to talk. The formula I use on that, it’s all about building trust, right? Words/talk times deeds/action equals trust. But right now we’ve got nothing but words and – but no action taken to address our fundamental concerns with where this relationship is going.
And so as the Secretary has said and many have said, all channels are open. We’re happy to have a discussion, but it can’t be just talks. It has to be action. And PRC – we are – our list of our demands are very clear. They understand what they are. They have not taken steps to address them.
I mean, we’ll go to the trade relationship. We say it’s an open and free trade construct, but as you know, it is absolutely not. We have national champions, SOEs, all these other things. The same thing goes in diplomacy. Chinese – as you saw with Houston, the Chinese diplomats are doing things that are not diplomatic. They’re doing things that are undermining medical research. They are doing things that are undermining freedom of speech, all these things. And in the meantime, the clamps on our activity in the PRC are only getting tighter. And so we are having discussions and we’re emphasizing through them that they need to address our fundamental concerns and we will take steps if they do not. Over.
MR BROWN: Great. I think we have time for one or two more. Let’s go to Conor Finnegan with ABC.
QUESTION: Hey, David, thank you for doing this. You and the Secretary have said repeatedly that this isn’t about harming the Chinese people or people-to-people ties between the U.S. and China. But the American public has a pretty historically poor view of Beijing at this moment, so what do you say to the criticism that the steps you guys have taken in the last few months on visas and media, the consulate closure, and now today’s action, will have that effect; it could increase the risk of a confrontation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I would say do not confuse the antagonist and the protagonist. Don’t – Hong Kong, we’ve been talking about that for a while. I don’t want to – let’s keep this call on the visa side of it, but the national security law and everything that has happened since has all been very deliberately executed by Beijing, and yet you still have questions about impacts on business and impacts on other things that have to do with Hong Kong.
Anything that happens to Hong Kong isn’t the U.S.’s fault. It’s not our doing. We’re doing our best to preserve what that was, the Hong Kong we all knew, but the activity and the changes are all coming out of Beijing by their own – by their choice. The impact in the U.S. on painting the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing, as not the beneficial player and global leader that they are purporting to be, they own that.
And what they’re finding, though, and what we’ve – what the fact sheet shows, what the Secretary’s words, what the Nixon Library speech and all these things are showing, is things that we have turned a blind eye to for far too long in the interest in 40 years of effort to help them understand the benefits of being truly open and transparent, about the benefits of truly free trade and all those things.
And this is why we make it very clear – and you’ll hear the Secretary say it often and I do every chance I get – this is not about the Chinese people, language, culture, anything. They’re in many ways as much the recipients of these unfortunate decisions as we are. We support them. We would love to see them operate in a more transparent and open environment. So understand who is taking the action and who it’s impacting.
As far as it impacts what’s going on here in the United States, the President has been very clear. He says not while I am president that stuff is not going to happen, and he’s taken very strong steps and positive steps to remedy that. Over.
MR BROWN: Okay, last question, and I apologize if I butcher your name. Zhaoyin Feng with BBC.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) do this. On the educational exchanges, dozens of Chinese students were reportedly interrogated at U.S. airports when they were trying to get on flights leaving the country, and their digital devices were taken away for further investigation. Is this kind of screening targeting departing Chinese students now a national policy, and what are the criteria you depend on to determine which students to be checked?
And if I can ask a second question, you mentioned the Chinese media in the U.S. A large group of Chinese journalists’ U.S. visas expired last week. Most of them worked for state media (inaudible) some of them worked for other Chinese media or even non-Chinese foreign media. What’s the administration’s current plans regarding this visa issue?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: As far as the students operating in the country or departing the country, you may remember there was a visa determination made about PLA students operating in the country. People who want to come here and study in the U.S. with the intent of learning and improving themselves and getting good jobs, the doors are wide open and we will always do that. But if you are here masquerading as – if you remember, I’ve got seven of them right here – Department of Justice announcements for one – I mean, the one in San Francisco, Tang Juan, who was here was a PLA officer[i] but denied that on her visa application and then when asked about, lied about it. We have to defend ourselves. And again, I’ll refer you to the law enforcement arm of this is how they determine who they talk to and who they don’t. But this is normal activity. This is what nations do to make sure security is taken care of. Over.
MR BROWN: Okay, I guess this is the end of the call. Thanks, Assistant Secretary Stilwell and Cliff for joining and for briefing us today, and for everyone who joined the call. As this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted. Everybody, have a great day.
[i] who was here as allegedly a PLA officer