Dozens of Chinese teachers at Confucius Institutes in the United States could be forced to leave by June 30 due to a State Department directive, the head of the institute’s Beijing headquarters said on Thursday.
The directive, issued May 17, was sent to universities that sponsor the nonprofit institutes that promote Chinese language and culture overseas.
It stated that academics, under a college's J-1 exchange program that teach students of elementary or secondary school age are in violation of visa regulations, and said they must return to China by the end of June to reapply for an appropriate program.
Fifty-one teachers may be forced to go back to China. About 600 currently work in the US, according to the Confucius Institute Headquarters, more commonly known as Hanban.
Discussions are taking place between China and the US. China is "in consultation" with the United States on the issue, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
"We hope the issue will be addressed appropriately and not affect the development of the programs," Hong said.
A senior official at Hanban, who did not want to be identified, added that the teachers it sends go through a strict process of selection by both China and the United States and receive special training.
"I thought that since the teachers were granted visas after receiving invitations from the US there would not be a problem," he said. "As someone who is responsible for Confucius Institutes in the US, I was shocked (by the directive).
"All the teachers embarked on their trip in a spirit of friendship but are being forced back with the feeling that they were not welcome. Isn't this harming friendship between Chinese and American people?
"What is hard to understand," he added, "is that the US, which is known for its strict visa policies, has, for years, allowed the Chinese teachers to hold their current visas. The US State Department and other agencies have never mentioned this issue to us before, but then suddenly it makes an announcement. Why?"
What also caught universities by surprise is the fact that the directive says Confucius Institutes should obtain U.S. accreditation in order to continue to accept foreign scholars and professors as teachers.
"The department is reviewing the academic viability of the Confucius Institutes. Based on the department's preliminary review, it is not evident that those institutes are US-accredited," the directive states.
A Chinese education official in the US, who requested anonymity, said that it is the first time a question of accreditation concerning the Confucius Institutes has been raised.
The first Confucius Institute in the United States was established at the University of Maryland in 2005. Since then, Hanban has dispatched more than 2,100 teachers.
Hanban argues that the 81 Confucius Institutes across the United States are established jointly by applicant U.S. universities and Chinese universities. They are run independently from Hanban.
"All headquarter resources that were given to the Confucius Institutes, including guest teachers, were provided based on requests from the U.S.," said the Hanban official who did not want to be identified.
Education officials from the Chinese embassy in the United States had planned to meet their counterparts at the U.S. State Department on Thursday.
However, on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department appeared to be backpedaling from its stance on accreditation.
In a report by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington-based news service, an unnamed U.S. State Department official was quoted as saying that the section of the policy directive on accreditation was "confusing" and it would be redrafted to clarify that Confucius Institutes that have partnerships with accredited colleges are in compliance with visa regulations.
"This is not about the Confucius Institutes or about the Chinese model," the official said. "This is just simply a regulatory matter."
The College of William and Mary in Virginia only opened its own Confucius Institute in April, and believes the policy directive may "inadvertently interfere with the very positive contributions made by Confucius Institutes to higher education in the US, as well as to US-China relations more broadly".
"While we do appreciate the importance of visa regulations, we hope that the State Department can work with our Chinese partners in a spirit of mutual cooperation to find ways to support the efforts of Hanban, to provide increased opportunities to learn about the language and culture of China," college president Taylor Reveley wrote in a letter to the US State Department.
Liu Yuhan in New York, Chang Jun in San Francisco and Wang Jun in Los Angeles contributed to the story.
Contact the writers at email@example.com
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