The US and China both fund large soft power programmes aimed at bolstering their image abroad
The interrogation of the American cultural centre staffer lasted an hour and a half. The Chinese police got straight to the point: where did it get its funding? How did it vet speakers? And most importantly, what was its connection to the US government?
It was an extreme case, but not unusual.
The US State Department documented over 150 examples of Chinese interference in American public diplomacy efforts between January 2016 and April 2017, carried out in the name of countering "hostile foreign forces" -- alleged saboteurs plotting to overthrow the Communist Party's rule.
The pressure has disrupted numerous cultural initiatives from salsa concerts and movie nights to visiting scholar programmes, even as China scoffs at growing concerns about the political influence of its own "Confucius Institutes", which have mushroomed around the world in recent years.
The Chinese interference has perhaps been felt most acutely at the American Centers for Cultural Exchange (ACCs), a network of US government-funded language and cultural facilities hosted on college campuses in China.
The US State Department has provided American universities and NGOs with grants to operate 29 such centres in conjunction with Chinese partners, such as universities.
But 10 of the partnerships have "dissolved due to pressure from Chinese government authorities, with some never moving beyond signing an agreement", the State Department's Office of the Inspector General wrote in a December report that concluded the difficulties may make it necessary to "suspend" new funding for the programme.
Today only around 10 centres remain active.
But even those have chosen to keep a low profile due to concerns about unwelcome attention from Chinese authorities, according to interviews with more than half a dozen people with knowledge of the programme.
After the police interrogation of the staffer -- a US citizen -- the ACC in southern China changed its name and was subsequently required to refuse American government funds, according to documents provided to Washington as part of the grant reporting process.
Such a move leaves an ACC dependent solely on money from its Chinese or American educational hosts.
"The US has raised its concern with restrictions on its public diplomacy activities, including the ACCs, with the relevant Chinese authorities frequently in recent years," State Department spokesman Michael Cavey told AFP.
Although Beijing has repeatedly agreed to address the issue, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions, Chinese pressure on the ACCs has only increased.
- 'A lightning rod' -
ACCs are typically small classrooms filled with American books and movies, designed as welcoming spaces to host conversation classes or lectures by visiting professors.
Programming has focused on English language education, lectures on US society, and cultural activities such as musical performances or movie nights, largely avoiding topics that the Chinese government might consider sensitive.
They were established in 2010 as a way "to help address the overall level of misunderstanding of US society and culture" in China, according to the State Department.
But they were also a direct response to China's rapidly expanding network of Confucius Institutes, government-run language centres that provide partner universities around the world with funds and often faculty to teach Chinese language and culture.
China has set up the centres at more than 100 universities across the US, including internationally renowned institutions like Columbia and Stanford.
But as the Chinese programme expanded, "intransigence" in Beijing left Washington "unable to reciprocate", the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote in a 2011 report on the ACCs.
That year, the State Department issued 10 grants of up to $100,000 to open centres, many of which also received an additional $50,000 a year to cover salaries, programming and facility maintenance.
While Washington provided funds for the programme, it took a largely hands-off approach to its activities.
The Confucius Institutes "stay in their lane. Everything is scripted", said one ACC administrator. But "with us, it was just, let's let the cats out of the bag and see where they go."
Nevertheless China sees the centres as a "mouthpiece of the State Department", said another administrator. "The connection is clearly a lightning rod."
- 'Hostile foreign forces' –
It is not clear why some ACCs have closed while others remain open.
But all have come under varying degrees of political pressure.
The remaining ACCs no longer update their once-active websites, sometimes at the request of their Chinese partners, who are concerned about negative attention from authorities.
Attendance at the programme's 2017 annual conference in the northeastern city of Shenyang was about half the previous year's, according to faculty.
China's education ministry instructed some Chinese participants not to attend, said sources familiar with the matter.
China's ministry of education told AFP it has "consistently supported" cooperation and exchange between Chinese and American universities.
ACCs should "conform to the educational requirements and comprehensive plans of the Chinese institutes of higher education," it added.
While Beijing's fears over "hostile foreign forces" infiltrating its educational system have compelled Chinese universities to restrict their students' exposure to "Western" culture and ideas, Confucius Institutes have largely flourished in the US.
But in recent months, several prominent US politicians including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have called for the Chinese centres to be shut down.
They cited concerns that Beijing's control over hiring, programming and course content has discouraged students and faculty from discussing topics considered sensitive by the Communist Party, such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown or Tibet policy.
China's nationalistic state-controlled tabloid the Global Times has in turn accused the US of being on a "witch hunt" against the Confucius Institutes.
"To call for them to be driven out of the country is a sign of extreme xenophobia," it wrote in a recent editorial.