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US-backed culture centres under pressure in China

AFP  |  Beijing 

The of the American cultural centre staffer lasted an hour and a half. The 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

It was an extreme case, but not unusual.

The 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 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

The 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 authorities, with some never moving beyond signing an agreement", the wrote in a December report that concluded the difficulties may make it necessary to "suspend" new funding for the programme.

Today 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 of the staffer -- a US citizen -- the ACC in changed its name and was subsequently required to refuse funds, according to documents provided to 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 told AFP.

Although 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 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 and often faculty to teach Chinese language and culture.

China has set up the centres at more than 100 universities across the US, including internationally renowned institutions like and

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Tue, March 13 2018. 16:10 IST