SAN FRANCISCO — In the far reaches of Redding, it’s not so easy to learn Chinese.

The Northern California city is 200 miles away from the Asian population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Only 958 of 91,236 Redding residents are ethnic Chinese, according to 2017 census data.

But Madeline and Cooper Overton were able to study Chinese in their Redding high school — and visit China on a three-week summer trip that took them from the modern mecca of Shanghai to the terra-cotta warriors of Xian to the Great Wall outside Beijing. The siblings lived with Chinese families during three-day home stays, showed off their language skills in presentations and posed for countless photos with Chinese students enthralled by the American teens.

“It really opened my eyes to different ways people live,” said Madeline Overton, 19, now a rising sophomore at San Diego State University, where she is continuing her Chinese language studies.

That cultural exchange is now in jeopardy. Under federal pressure, San Francisco State University has abruptly ended a 14-year collaboration with China that subsidized the Redding program and supported Chinese language classes, cultural events, teacher training and summer camps for thousands of other Bay Area students, educators and community members.

Since 2005, San Francisco State had partnered with Beijing Normal University to host a collaborative Confucius Institute on the Bay Area campus. The $390,000 annual costs were split between SFSU and Hanban, an affiliate of the Chinese Ministry of Education.

But U.S. officials are taking aim at Confucius and other Chinese government-supported programs, warning that universities have unwittingly exposed themselves to undue influence or even espionage efforts from America’s major political and economic rival.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and other lawmakers have pushed for U.S. universities to cut ties with Confucius centers. What finally prompted San Francisco State to do so in May was an ultimatum from Congress, placed in the Defense Department’s 2019 funding bill, to shut down its Confucius Institute or lose federal funding for foreign language training programs.

After difficult discussions, San Francisco State chose to keep its federally funded program, called Chinese Flagship, which serves about 30 students each year with a $475,000 Defense Department grant for intensive language instruction, cultural training and opportunities for study and internships in China.

All 13 universities that hosted both programs have decided to close their Confucius Institutes — including San Diego State, said Gao Qing, director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center. About 90 institutes remain, down from a peak of 110 a few years ago, including five in California at California State University at Long Beach, the University of California at Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and Stanford.

San Francisco State officials said they chose the Flagship program over the Confucius Institute because it offered more advanced training for their students — but expressed frustration that they could not keep both.

“Closing the Confucius Institute is the wrong thing to do,” said Yenbo Wu, associate vice president of the international education division. “Keeping Flagship is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, we can’t do both and not because we did anything wrong. It’s because of outside policy pressures we have no control over.”

Wu said San Francisco State applied for a waiver to allow both programs to continue — administrators were confident they met the federal requirement to show there was no connection between the two — but the request was denied.

He said a major misperception is that Confucius Institutes are Trojan horses for Chinese undue influence at American universities. At San Francisco State, he said, the institute was “totally controlled” by his campus with no influence from the Chinese government. He and his colleagues vetted and approved all Chinese educational material as well as the Beijing Normal University instructors sent to help teach, he said.

Two faculty-led reviews have praised San Francisco State’s institute, which was the first established on the West Coast. The institute has provided Chinese language classes and tutoring to more than 600 SFSU students since 2006 and supports “Confucius Classrooms” offering such programs in Redding and four other area schools. It also has hosted cultural events attended by 15,000 people last year and a Chinese language speech contest that draws an average 1,200 students annually, according to a San Francisco State review last year. In addition, the institute helps fund a summer camp in China for about 20 high school students annually and holds trainings on teaching Mandarin, which drew 2,200 educators in the last five years, the review found.

Wu said a visiting team of investigators from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found no problems. That review, released in February, did report concerns from other universities about potential self-censorship — avoiding criticism of China’s policies regarding Taiwan or Tibet, for instance — but did not cite any actual cases.

In a more critical review, a Senate committee found that the institute’s language programs lacked transparency, threatened academic freedom and gave the Chinese government access to the U.S. education system that China does not extend to American programs. In an eight-month probe, however, Senate investigators uncovered no evidence connecting the Confucius Institute with Chinese espionage.

The Overton family sees the federal actions as overreach and is dismayed that those actions will potentially deprive another Overton child of the opportunities for Chinese learning enjoyed by his siblings. Seth and Joye Overton say the Confucius programs never attempted to brainwash their children but gave them valuable exposure to other languages and cultures that is difficult to acquire in their small town, where 84% of residents are white.

“It’s not about brainwashing,” said Seth Overton, a registered nurse. “It’s all about learning, opening doors to a better relationship and an opportunity for discourse to get away from stereotypes you see in TV and movies.”

Kaylee Doty is a 17-year-old rising senior at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy in Rocklin, outside Sacramento. She said her school’s Confucius Classroom teacher helped her win an international Chinese language contest in Kunming, China, in 2017 and find a passion for the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument.

In addition, she said, students explored such sensitive issues as China’s treatment of ethnic minorities and its participation in the illegal animal trade for Chinese traditional medicine.

“There was no censorship,” Doty said. “We were encouraged to research different topics and look at all sides.”

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Jennifer Yu, a Bay Area educator, said institute subsidies of more than $2,500 for educational materials and travel funds to a teacher training conference have helped her become a better and more confident educator.

She said the Hayward Unified School District and four of the schools hosting Confucius Classrooms have formed a new organization and applied directly to Hanban for continued funding.

San Francisco State, too, plans to look for alternative funding to continue some of the programs the institute ran. The university will retain Jiaxin Xie, the institute’s director, to help spearhead those efforts.

For now, Xie is busy shutting down 14 years of work. His old office still displays colorful Beijing opera masks, red lanterns and firecrackers, banners and plaques, speech contest trophies. Those will soon be gone, packed up and hauled to a campus storage room that is already stuffed with 200 boxes of the institute’s Chinese books and other items.

“All these things were used to serve our students and the Northern California community,” Wu said. “Suddenly they’re sitting here doing nothing. It’s not a happy story.”

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(Times staff writer Don Lee contributed to this report.)

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): CMP-CHINA-INSTITUTE

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

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