Beijing: The interrogation of the American cultural centre staffer lasted an hour and a half. The Chinese police got straight to the point: where did it get its funding? How did it vet speakers? And most importantly, what was its connection to the US government?
China ups ante on US-backed 'culture centres'
It was an extreme case, but not unusual. The US State Department documented over 150 examples of Chinese interference in American public diplomacy efforts between January 2016 and April 2017, carried out in the name of countering "hostile foreign forces" -- alleged saboteurs plotting to overthrow the Communist Party's rule.
The pressure has disrupted numerous cultural initiatives from salsa concerts and movie nights to visiting scholar programmes, even as China scoffs at growing concerns about the political influence of its own "Confucius Institutes", which have mushroomed around the world in recent years.
The Chinese interference has perhaps been felt most acutely at the American Centers for Cultural Exchange (ACCs), a network of US government-funded language and cultural facilities hosted on college campuses in China. The US State Department has provided American universities and NGOs with grants to operate 29 such centres in conjunction with Chinese partners, such as universities.
But 10 of the partnerships have "dissolved due to pressure from Chinese government authorities, with some never moving beyond signing an agreement", the State Department's Office of the Inspector General wrote in a December report that concluded the difficulties may make it necessary to "suspend" new funding for the programme. On Tuesday only around 10 centres remain active. But even those have chosen to keep a low profile due to concerns about unwelcome attention from Chinese authorities, according to interviews with more than half a dozen people with knowledge of the programme.
After the police interrogation of the staffer -- a US citizen -- the ACC in southern China changed its name and was subsequently required to refuse American government funds, according to documents provided to Washington as part of the grant reporting process.
Such a move leaves an ACC dependent solely on money from its Chinese or American educational hosts.
"The US has raised its concern with restrictions on its public diplomacy activities, including the ACCs, with the relevant Chinese authorities frequently in recent years," State Department spokesman Michael Cavey said. Although Beijing has repeatedly agreed to address the issue, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions, Chinese pressure on the ACCs has only increased.
ACCs are typically small classrooms filled with American books and movies, designed as welcoming spaces to host conversation classes or lectures by visiting professors.
Programming has focused on English language education, lectures on US society, and cultural activities such as musical performances or movie nights, largely avoiding topics that the Chinese government might consider sensitive. They were established in 2010 as a way "to help address the overall level of misunderstanding of US society and culture" in China, according to the State Department.
But they were also a direct response to China's rapidly expanding network of Confucius Institutes, government-run language centres that provide partner universities around the world with funds.