DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The U.S.-China dispute plays out in lots of different ways, including in language classes at colleges. Both countries give money to universities here in the U.S. for language classes. China's government does it through language centers known as Confucius Institutes. But now, these American universities must choose - they can take money from the Pentagon or from the Confucius Institute but not both.
Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to our center. If you have any questions about the Confucius Institute, I will be happy to answer anything that you may be wondering. But...
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Several dozen visitors are gathered on a summer evening at the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington. They're here for a lecture on China by a retired American professor. The center often hosts such events. It also supports Confucius Institutes that offer Chinese language and culture programs at nearly 100 universities across the U.S. They're funded by China's education ministry.
Gao Qing is the head of the Center in Washington.
GAO QING: The Confucius Institute programs are essentially Chinese-language learning centers.
MYRE: And he's quick to stress that these programs...
GAO: Do not teach politics. Those are apolitical.
MYRE: Apolitical. Riding a wave of rising American interest in China, the institutes expanded rapidly after the first one opened at the University of Maryland in 2004.
But last year, Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, added an amendment to the U.S. military spending bill. It says a university with a Confucius Institute cannot also receive money from a Defense Department program that pays for Chinese language training.
TED CRUZ: Confucius Institutes also expose U.S. universities to espionage, to the threat of theft of intellectual property, which we are seeing far too frequently at colleges and universities.
MYRE: Many U.S. politicians and national security officials agree that China is waging a massive spying campaign against the U.S. that targets the government, high-tech companies and universities.
Some say the language institutes give China an outpost on campuses that could also be used to recruit spies in the U.S. and keep tabs on Chinese students here.
Still, it's important to note, the Confucius Institutes have not been charged with any wrongdoing. And American universities that have them say they like them. But forced to choose, at least 13 schools closed Confucius Institutes in the past year to preserve Pentagon funding. They include the University of Oregon.
DENNIS GALVAN: It's very clear that faculty were anguished about the choice.
MYRE: Dennis Galvan is the vice provost for global engagement at Oregon.
GALVAN: They would have much preferred to not have to choose between these two projects that they had created and nourished over more than a decade. So it was a reluctant decision but a pragmatic one in the end.
MYRE: The University of Nebraska still has its Confucius Institute, which Harvey Perlman helped set up in 2007 when he was the chancellor. Under the arrangement, the institute sends about a dozen language teachers from China to high schools around the state.
HARVEY PERLMAN: In Scotts Bluff, Neb., a town of about 15,000, we had a Chinese teacher out there that taught two years of Chinese as a language. And five students graduated from high school and chose to start their undergraduate degree in Xi'an.
MYRE: He's referring to Xi'an Jiaotong, a partner university in China. Perlman and officials at other universities say they remain supportive of the Confucius Institute and have not seen evidence of espionage or interference with the university's curriculum.
Gao Qing, the executive director in Washington, steers clear of politics, but he acknowledges the darkening mood.
GAO: It is a very challenging time for anybody who are doing the bilateral related work.
MYRE: Meanwhile, Ted Cruz has additional plans. Asked if he would like to close all Confucius Institutes, he says...
CRUZ: To be honest, yes. I do not think it is good for U.S. universities to become beachheads for the Chinese government.
MYRE: With an eye on China, Cruz proposed a bill in June that would give the FBI greater authority to guard against the theft of university research.
Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
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