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The State Department has designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center a “foreign mission” of China, the latest salvo in the ongoing confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

The designation applies only to the D.C.-based coordinating office, not to the Chinese-government-funded language and cultural centers at colleges. But David R. Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said universities should “take a hard look at what’s going on on their own campuses.”

I spoke with the directors of several campus Confucius Institutes following Thursday’s announcement, and while they still were looking into the foreign-mission designation, all said they did not think it would affect their operations. Gao Qing, executive director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, told Elizabeth Redden of Inside Higher Ed that the administrative office already provides the U.S. government with much of what would be required to report as a foreign mission, which includes information about personnel, real-estate holdings, funding, and other operations.

“I think it is largely symbolic,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told me. He called the designation a “relatively effortless and cost-free way” for the government to keep up pressure on China.

Daly said the CI U.S. Center meets the requirements of a foreign mission under American law — it’s owned and controlled by a foreign government. “Foreign mission” is a technical definition and doesn’t necessarily imply bad intent. In his remarks, however, Stilwell called Confucius Institutes part of China’s “global propaganda and malign influence campaign.”

(At a press briefing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the State Department’s action was “demonizing and stigmatizing the normal operation of a cooperation project between China and the U.S.”)

The Chinese government started the language centers as part of its effort at soft-power diplomacy, a way to show a different face of China to the world. But as a tool, they’ve become increasingly less effective. Bowing to pressure from campus critics and elected officials, 40 have closed in recent years, and there are now just 65 on American campuses.

Universities in Germany, India, Sweden, and elsewhere have also shut the centers down. It’s hard to imagine, given the state of Sino-American relations, a college signing an agreement to open a Confucius Institute today.

In the end, investigations into Chinese research ties or restrictions on Chinese student visas are likely to be more consequential for American higher education than the foreign-mission designation, Daly said. Still, it’s one more reminder of the shadow geopolitics casts over classrooms and quads.

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Biden on International Education

Later this week, Joe Biden will officially accept the Democratic nomination for president. What would a Biden administration mean for international education? Based on public statements and policy positions posted on his campaign website, here’s some of what we might expect of a Biden presidency:

  • He has pledged to repeal the Trump administration’s ban on travelers, including students and scholars, from a half-dozen primarily Muslim countries.
  • He would also push to exempt recent foreign graduates of American Ph.D. programs in STEM fields from employment-based visa caps. Qualified international students should be given a green card with their degree, Biden said. “Losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”
  • Biden was vice president when the Obama administration created DACA, and he has said he would reinstate the program to shield young, undocumented immigrants from deportation while looking for a more-permanent fix to their legal limbo. He would also make Dreamers eligible for federal student aid and for a new plan to make two years of community college free.
  • Biden hasn’t detailed positions on specific student-visa issues. But in July he criticized the Trump administration’s since-rescinded policy on international students and remote learning:
  • Workers from overseas shouldn’t take Americans’ jobs, Biden said, and he has called for reforms to temporary visa programs for high-skilled workers to ensure that their allocation is in line with labor-market needs. But he said would reverse an executive order by President Trump restricting new visas and that there should be more H1-B visas overall.

Around the Globe

A doctoral student at George Washington University was detained by authorities at his home in Belarus.

Saudi Arabia, the fourth largest source of international students in the U.S., said it would permit its students on government scholarships overseas to study online for the fall semester.

The resumption of U.S. visa services in India and the prioritizing of student-visa applicants is an important development, but it may be too late for students seeking to come for the fall.

Controversy erupted in Britain after an algorithm developed to award student scores on a nationwide exam used in university admissions gave many students marks lower than teachers had predicted.

A State Department cable obtained by ProPublica predicts an 82 percent drop in nonimmigrant visas — a category that includes student, as well as business and tourist, visas — in 2021.

An update to student-visa guidance says that if colleges submitted a procedural change plan in the spring and they haven’t substantively changed operations for fall, they don’t need to submit a new plan.

The Asia-Pacific Association for International Education has postponed its March 2021 conference until 2022.

And finally…

Last week I asked for pandemic reading and viewing recommendations. Megan Murray, an international student adviser at Babson College suggested Good Trouble, a documentary about the late congressman and Civil Rights pioneer John Lewis. “Certainly has some wisdom for us in these days where long-game courage as advocates is crucial,” she wrote.

Please keep the recommendations coming! Meanwhile, I was thrilled to see a new essay in the New Yorker from Peter Hessler, one of my favorite writers on China. The piece is nominally about how China has handled the coronavirus, but Hessler, who first came to China to teach through the Peace Corps, is now a writing instructor at Sichuan University, and I found it chiefly interesting for his observations about today’s Chinese students.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.