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by William A. Rugh

During the pandemic that swept the world in 2020, President Trump sought to focus major blame on China, where the virus first emerged. At a press conference on March 20, as American cases increased dramatically, he began to call it the “Chinavirus”, crossing out the word “coronavirus” in his prepared text. [i] He continued to use that term, so criticizing China became a central theme in American “public diplomacy”. A new burden was added to the U.S.-China relationship, at the very time we need more, not less, mutual understanding.

Public diplomacy encompasses efforts to explain American policy and society to publics in foreign countries and understand their opinions so as to deal with misinformation about the United States. It engages with others in an honest dialogue to listen to their points of view so that we can correct misunderstandings. In this effort the United States has the benefit of American “soft power” assets, i.e. the non-military aspects of America that are widely admired abroad such as our education, our democracy and legal institutions, our technology and entrepreneurship, our press freedoms and our popular culture. The public diplomacy tools the U.S. government uses to promote these assets include: broadcasting, social media, student and professional exchanges, and American centers.

American public diplomacy is a global effort aimed at publics in every country. It is most difficult where authoritarian regimes block it. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was our biggest national challenge. [ii]

China’s information and other activities in America have now become a major focus of our concerns, most recently culminating in the U.S. ordering China to close its consulate in Houston, with China retaliating by closing the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. For decades, we welcomed active U.S.-China student exchanges. Before the pandemic there were over 350,000 Chinese students in the U.S., more than any other country, and about 10,000 American students in China. The U.S. government as a matter of policy has long supported these two-way exchanges as beneficial to the United States, fitting within the American concept of useful public diplomacy since they learn from us and we learn from them. But on May 29, President Trump issued a presidential proclamation restricting the entry of graduate students and researchers from China. It said China is engaged in a wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property”, adding that the Chinese authorities “use some Chinese students …. to operate as non-traditional collectors of intellectual property.” [iii]

Confucius Institutes

The Chinese government since 2004 has also sponsored the establishment of cultural centers in many countries, called “Confucius Institutes”, that it says is their public diplomacy outreach effort. The first Institute opened in the U.S. at the University of Maryland in 2004. The program then expanded to more than 100 in the United States and 500 worldwide. These institutes offer Chinese language classes, books and cultural presentations about China. They are funded by China’s Education Ministry and are linked to the Chinese Communist Party.[iv] At the time, Washington did not object.

In recent years, however, members of Congress began focusing on the Confucius Institutes. In July 2019 Senator Ted Cruz told the press that “Confucius Institutes expose U.S. universities to espionage, to the threat of intellectual property, which we are seeing too frequently at U.S. colleges and universities.” He said he would like to shut them down. Other politicians said the Institutes give the Chinese government an outpost on campuses that could be used to recruit spies on the U.S. and keep close tabs on Chinese students studying here. Institute spokesmen have denied that they do anything political, and said they are only a way to develop China’s soft power, and they have not been charged officially with any wrongdoing. But pressure increased against them and during the past six years an estimated 31 of the 100 universities hosting Confucius Institutes have cut ties, citing academic freedom issues.[v]

Part of their decision was financial. In August 2018 Senator Cruz sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Bill that barred U.S. universities from using any Pentagon funding for any program that involved Confucius Institutes. As a result, several universities that depend partly on DoD money cancelled their Confucius Institute contracts with China. This despite the fact that since the first one opened in the United States in 2004, thousands of American students have studied Chinese in these institutes, and hundreds of thousands have attended Chinese cultural events sponsored by them.[vi]

The Trump administration joined in criticism of China’s information activities. In February 2018 FBI Director Christopher Wray warned universities not to be naïve about Chinese spies and said the Confucius Institutes were on his radar. Vice President Pence also complained about the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which have more than 150 branches on American campuses. He said they not only organize Chinese student events, but they also “alert Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line.”[vii]   Then at a UN Security Council session on September 26, 2018, President Trump accused China of interfering in the American political process, saying China was using propaganda to flood America with ads and statements opposing his policies. He said, “Besides that, we learned that they are trying to meddle in our elections, and we are not going to let that happen.” An unnamed U.S. official told the press at the time that the Trump administration believes China stifles free speech on U.S. campuses.[viii]

Attacks on VOA

President Trump’s campaign against China has included an active attempt to politicize VOA and our other government broadcasters. ln April, at a news conference about China, he said, “If you hear what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting.” Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino Jr. then posted on Twitter: “American taxpayers – paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!”

Voice of America logo

At the same time, the White House criticized the Voice of America for supposedly promoting Chinese government propaganda in its reporting on the Coronavirus pandemic. That was just when President Trump began talking about the “Chinavirus”. The official White House website posted the headline “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda.” The White House account said, “Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda. VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world.” It added, “Even worse, while much of the U.S. media takes its lead from China, VOA went one step further: It created graphics with Communist government statistics to compare China’s Coronavirus death toll to America’s. As intelligence experts point out, there is simply no way to verify the accuracy of China’s numbers.”[ix]

In June President Trump succeeded in installing Michael Pack, a right-wing supporter, as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media that supervises VOA and our other civilian broadcasters. He had nominated Pack for the position in 2018 but Democrats held up his appointment because they regarded him as a highly partisan person who would undermine the professional independence of VOA that has always carefully guarded its journalistic integrity. On June 4, on a party line vote, the Senate approved Michael Pack and within two weeks of Park’s approval, there was a widespread shakeup of all senior USAGM positions. VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy resigned, as did Libby Liu, the chief of USAGM’s open technology division, indicating their concern about Pack. In her farewell letter to staff, Ms. Bennett said she hoped Pack would “respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence.”[x] But a few days later Pack fired the directors of all four of the USAGM’s so-called “surrogate” stations that are directed at authoritarian countries like China, in order to give their publics access to independent information.[xi]

It was extraordinary for the White House to attack VOA and the surrogate stations, which are among America’s most important public diplomacy instruments. The attack was strongly criticized by newspaper editorials and op-eds, where VOA’s independence and journalistic integrity were defended.[xii]

Chinese Restrictions

Program at Chengdu American Center, now closed as part of the U.S. consulate.

 At a time when the Chinese government imposes serious impediments to the U.S. embassy’s public diplomacy program in China, accurate U.S. government media are all the more necessary. China hinders the embassy’s access to local media and prevents use of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube; it regularly cancels more than half of the grants we offer to Chinese professionals to visit America; and it restricts activities in the five “American spaces” where the embassy operates educational and cultural programs. In 2010 China agreed to allow U.S. universities to establish 29 “American Cultural Centers” in Chinese provincial universities that the embassy supported with a $5.1 million grant, but intrusive Chinese government restrictions caused ten to close later, and the embassy to suspend funding.[xiii] The Chinese government also prevents its citizens from using information centers in our embassies and consulates, and monitors their meetings with U.S. officials. This means that only the VOA and other U.S. government international broadcasts reach the Chinese people mostly unhindered.

How Should America Respond?

The fear of Confucius Institutes is exaggerated. In fact, Americans are today engaged in intense discussions about Russian meddling in our political system. Fox News and MSNBC argue about these issues all the time in discussions that remind viewers of the Russian threat. The courts are active on the issue and there are lively debates on university campuses. There is little evidence that Russian or Chinese authoritarian ideas have crept into the arguments by any of the participants. Some of us probably could be better educated and more skilled at civilized and rational discussion of controversial topics, but American awareness and assertiveness does not seem to be a problem.

In the competition with China and Russia for world opinion on which political system is best, we should depend on three things. First, we can help educate Russians and Chinese and others who live in authoritarian systems if they come here as students and other visitors and see the reality of how our system works. That requires more open doors, fewer obstacles to exchange of persons, and higher budgets for Fulbright and other programs. That means exposing our soft power assets to foreign scrutiny, because we believe in our system and values. Second, we should continue and enhance our U.S. government public diplomacy programs, where we can. Third, we should improve our educational system’s ability to educate Americans about the world.

American official public diplomacy has always supported the concept of open debate and the principle that we should listen to our critics. We normally have welcomed foreigners who come from societies different from ours, and we pay their way here with Fulbright and other programs because America benefits when they learn first-hand about us, and we learn from them.

Ambassador Stapleton Roy, one of America’s leading China experts, regrets that the U.S. is “demonizing China,” saying “Chinese students and scholars are being portrayed as espionage agents whose primary purpose is to steal American and technological sectors. This is not a healthy situation.” He urges that instead we adopt a “competitive approach” with China.[xiv]  As Congressman Tom Malinowski said in an op-ed, “With appropriate safeguards, the United States would continue to embrace ordinary Chinese students and academics, instead of helping Beijing stop the brain drain it fears. U.S. leaders would defend Asian Americans instead of using phrases that stoke racism such as ‘Chinese virus’ and that help the Chinese Government rally support.”[xv]

There are better remedies to the attempts by authoritarian governments to undertake nefarious interventions in America than to close Confucius centers, restrict students, and shut down the Fulbright and Peace Corps programs in China. In fact, the United States should do more than it has already done to open its borders to foreigners to come here as students, professionals and other visitors. Chinese and Russian students always learn a great deal about American democracy and other aspects of our society when they come here, and they take that knowledge back home with them. Exposure to our “soft power” has more impact on them than any imagined negative impact they might have on Americans. And Americans learn from foreign visitors. President Trump’s building walls approach and especially his restrictions on foreign visitors coming here is not keeping out malign foreign influence; it is instead harming us.

By raising alarm about the dangers posed by the Russian and Chinese government conducting informational and educational programs directed at Americans, but not proposing reasonable remedies, these analyses leave open the door for others to develop stronger and possibly counterproductive solutions to the “problems” described. Shutting down Confucius centers closes windows to China’s society. Stopping Russian and Chinese students from coming to the United States for an education, or Russian and Chinese professionals from meeting here with their American counterparts, inhibits mutual understanding and prevents beneficial professional collaboration. Building walls and restricting immigration is not an effective solution to disagreement.

It is certainly true that if any foreign government interferes in our elections or distorts our political system in any way, we should try to expose and counter it. When the Chinese government lies, we should say so. But on balance, America benefits from more, not fewer, encounters with people who have opinions different from ours. In open and fair discussions, we get better at understanding and explaining our own system. We also understand the fundamental views of others, which in turn helps us to promote our national interests. Building walls and closing institutions usually works against those interests.End.


William A. Rugh

William Rugh was a United States Foreign Service Officer 1964-1995. He had nine assignments abroad, including two as U.S. ambassador, to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. He served in senior public diplomacy positions at our embassies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and in Washington D.C. at the U.S. Information Agency. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in international relations and he speaks Arabic and German. He has taught graduate courses at Northeastern University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has published books and numerous articles on public diplomacy and on U.S. policy in the Middle East.


[i] Washington Post, March 20, 2020

[ii] Washington Times 7/13/2018

[iii] Stuart Anderson, “Inside Trump’s Immigration Order to Restrict Chinese Students”, Forbes, June 1, 2020

[iv] NPR 7/17/2019

[v] NPR 7/17/2019, and Human Rights Watch 1/27/2020

[vi] Washington Post 8/14/2018 “Pentagon Barred from Funding Confucius Institutes on American Campuses”

[vii] The Hudson Institute, “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Towards China”, October 4, 2018, and Los Angeles Times 1/23/2019

[viii] “Trump to World Leaders: China Out to Meddle in 2018 Election”. , AP News 9-26-2018

[ix] Washington Post, 4/10/2020

[x] New York Times, June 16, 17 and 18, 2020

[xi] New York Times, June 8, 2020

[xii] For example, Colbert I. King, “Trump’s attack on the VOA reeks of McCarthyism”, Washington Post, April 18, 2020; Editorial Board, “No, Mr. Trump, VOA is not Chinese propaganda. Now don’t turn it into U.S. propaganda”, Washington Post, April 10, 2020; and Editorial, “A Test of Voice of America’s Credibility”, New York Times, June 17, 2020

[xiii] U.S. Department of State, Office of Inspector General, “Inspection of Embassy Beijing and Constituent Post, China”, ISP-I-18-04, December 2017, pp. 7-11; and Jane Perlez and Luz Ding, “China Thwarts U.S. Effort to Promote U.S. Culture on Campuses”, New York Times, 12/30/2018

[xiv] “Outlook for United States Relations with China”, Little Falls Village talk, May 27, 2020

[xv] Washington Post, June 3, 2020

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