By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. agencies on Thursday promised stricter monitoring of China-funded Confucius Institutes, cultural centers at U.S. universities that have been criticized for serving as propaganda arms of the Communist government in Beijing.
Officials from the Departments of State and Education told a Senate hearing they would more closely police visas granted to the institutes' staff and do more to ensure that schools meet requirements to report large donations from foreign governments.
"We fully understand and share your concern about the need to keep malign foreign interests from compromising the academic integrity of American colleges and universities, while respecting the importance of institutional autonomy and academic freedom," Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais told the hearing, adding that the department "stands ready" to work with the committee.
Amid wide-ranging criticism of China in Washington, the Senate Oversight Committee's Permanent Committee on Investigations held the hearing a day after releasing a highly critical report on the institutes, citing violations of visa rules and reporting requirements.
China has provided over $158 million to the Confucius Institutes, where it controls staffing and programming, the report said.
Senate investigators, who spent eight months looking into the cultural centers, said they would recommend shutting them down altogether barring significant changes.
"Our report details how China - known for its one-sided dealings in trade sometimes - uses similar tactics in its unfair treatment of U.S. schools," said Senator Rob Portman, a former U.S. Trade Representative and the subcommittee's chairman.
China's government denies that the centers are intended to promote the views of the Communist party.
The Chinese embassy in Washington responded with a comment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing that the Confucius Institutes are very popular with teachers and students and accusing "certain people and institutions in the US" of trying to politicize them.
"The daily operation and management of all these Confucius Institutes are legal and legitimate as well as open and transparent," the statement said.
There are about 100 Confucius Institutes at U.S. colleges and universities, and about 500 "Confucius classrooms" teaching Chinese to younger students.
At the hearing, Portman noted that 10 of the institutes had shut down recently, and speculated that was at least partly a result of the investigation.
As President Donald Trump's administration wages a trade war with China and U.S. intelligence cites concerns about espionage, some members of Congress have offered legislation seeking to control the Confucius Institutes, such as requiring staff to register as foreign agents.
Citing growing concerns about potential Chinese espionage on campuses, the Trump administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions on the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in the United States.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Tom Brown and James Dalgleish)