An alumna of Saint Mary’s School in Oregon reflects on her time studying at a CCP "Confucius Classroom."
Oregon is consistently ranked among the worst performing states in the nation for K-12 education. Dwindling graduation rates and poor test scores are chronic problems, and academically rigorous private schools are few and far between. The good schools that do exist are primarily in Portland and its suburbs, leaving a geographic majority of the state barren. However, there is one notable exception: Saint Mary’s School.
Located in southern Oregon, Saint Mary’s boasts an A+ rating from Niche and is consistently among the best private schools in the state. Its graduation rate is an impressive one-hundred percent, it offers over two-hundred courses, twenty-four of which are advanced placement, and students have the opportunity to learn all over the world through its study abroad program. There’s just one catch: it’s in bed with the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).
As an alumni of Saint Mary’s, I have often used “I went to a communist high school,” as an icebreaker. It is usually met with a laugh and a quip about the politics of my home state, but when I clarify that I seriously (“yes, really!”) went to a school funded by the CCP, the laughing stops. Saint Mary’s proudly proclaims that it is the “first Confucius Classroom established in North or South America” and administrators of the school are not shy about hiding this fact, either.
In my initial interview and tour, I was told that Saint Marys’ Confucius Classroom was the first in the nation, and the “classroom” status meant that about half of the student population was Chinese nationals. I was not told anything more than that, however, and neither were my parents, the people actually footing the subsidized bill for my brother and I to attend.
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My family’s understanding of the school we were enrolling in was that it was “big C Catholic,” not “big C Communist.” There’s a chapel on campus that is based on the architecture of the Mausoleam of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, the mascot is a crusader, and even Wikipedia will tell you that the school is Roman Catholic.
Yet, while we did use the chapel a handful of times in my three years there, the far more dominant presence was the building marked as a “Confucius Classroom.” It was next to the auditorium that the whole school gathered in four times a week for “morning meeting,” so I, and everyone else, walked past it every day. It was a constant presence on our campus, but it was rarely talked about.
In recent years, the existence of Confucius Institutes at American colleges and universities has become a topic of interest for government officials, including members of Congress, but discussion about Confucius Classrooms, and their far more dangerous K-12 counterparts, has been seriously lacking.
These classrooms provide the CCP with direct access to American children and facilitate long-term influence campaigns and economic espionage, and aside from a few low-level news hits, they have been able to continue operating under the radar, even as Congress cracks down on the university-level institutes.
My day to day experience at school was not all that much different from the average high schooler’s, as far as I know. I learned from excellent teachers, I played sports, occasionally skipped class, and my friends and I probably spent a little too much time goofing off. There are a few notable areas, however, that are different.
First, there was and still is an outsized emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM”). The school has an advanced robotics program, one that has sent students to world championships more than once. The math team was and perhaps still is the most successful group in the school, consistently competing at and winning state-level competitions.
Very few domestic students (at least in my day) made that team. The school has not given a clear answer on why this emphasis exists. It could be that STEM is simply the future,and the school is recognizing that and setting students up for success in an increasingly competitive marketplace. It could also be, and my suspicion is, that the CCP prefers that the school focus on STEM for long-term economic espionage and global advantages.
A survey of known incidents of Chinese espionage in the United States since 2000 revealed that “commercial espionage by both private and government entities remains a feature of Chinese spying,” and “54% of incidents sought to acquire commercial technologies.” Importantly, the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes “while nationality is a predictive factor for espionage, ethnicity is not. Chinese nationals who come to the US to…study are a fertile ground for recruitment,” and are susceptible to coercive measures employed by the Chinese government.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray has summarized the problem, saying, “China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation any way it can [including] through … targeting academia … seeking our cutting-edge research, our advanced technology, and our world class equipment and expertise.” It should come as no surprise, then, that Saint Mary’s focuses on STEM; it serves China’s strategic interests. Even if the emphasis on STEM and the Confucious Classroom were unrelated, however, the threat remains.
Which brings me to the second obvious and notable difference: around half of the current students and my fellow alumni at Saint Mary’s are Chinese nationals. I wish I could tell you how connected these students are to the CCP, but the reality is that I just do not know. My knowledge is anecdotal, but for what it is worth, the students I interacted with were all extremely smart and incredibly affluent, and the latter indicates party loyalty. For the vast majority of the last century, being rich in China was against the rules.
In the 1980s, things changed and China turned away from a centrally planned economy and towards market competition. The country replaced the hammer and sickle with Hermès and Starbucks. But it would be a mistake to think that the CCP’s influence has waned because of this fact. Rather, if President Xi Jinping has made one thing abundantly clear, it is that “a life of luxury must come second to communist party loyalty.”
What degree of control the CCP has on any of my classmates, I do not know, and it would be unfair and unwise to broadly assume that all (or even most) Chinese nationals are sympathetic to the CCP. I am confident many of them are not, and my concern does not lie with them. It lies with a party of thugs that uses fear, intimidation, violence, coercion, and threats against its own people. It is with a party that cracks down on dissidents, a party that unjustly kills and then forcibly harvests the organs of its prisoners, a party that clearly would not think twice about using Chinese nationals studying in the United States for economic, cultural, and political gain.
The connection I have just drawn may be too intangible to accurately see the looming threat, so I will narrow it down. In 2013, Saint Mary’s Head of School Frank Phillips accepted the “Confucius Classroom of the Year” award from the then-Vice Premier of China, Liu Yandong. Yandong was a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist party from 2007 to 2017, and led the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party between 2002 and 2007. The United Front Work Department (the “UFWD”), which Yandong worked at since the early 90s, “is a network of party and state agencies responsible for influencing groups outside the party,” both at home and abroad.
Xi Jinping has described the UFWD as an “important magic weapon for strengthening the party’s ruling position” because it uses its connections around the world to influence elections, conduct economic espionage, and promulgate CCP propaganda. Of interest to us here is that Confucious Classrooms, like the institutes, are “overseen with heavy involvement from the UFWD.” The former head of the UFWD handing an award to an American head of school for its Confucius Classroom seems to be evidence enough that this is true.
The question then becomes: What do we do about it? I have sympathy for those in Oregon who choose to send their children to Saint Mary’s. I can certainly attest to the educational excellence of the school and the community. From the moment I transferred there, I was pushed by my teachers, administrators, and fellow students to perform at a higher level than I thought possible.
By my senior year I was a confident, happy student, more than prepared to conquer college level courses. But that is the problem, isn’t it? For parents and students in Oregon, the choice boils down to a disastrous public education system or a school that actively cooperates with the CCP.
What is evident, is that both state and Congressional action is needed in this space. As a nation, we are failing when the best choice for a family is a CCP school. There are so many questions that need to be answered: What amount of funding comes from the CCP and what strings are attached to those funds? Does the party have influence over curriculum or courses? Are there topics that faculty members are instructed to stay away from? How often do administrators meet with CCP officials? What process does the CCP employ in deciding which students it sends to our schools?
If we want to retain our place in the world, and more importantly, if we as a nation want to take the threat of a rising China seriously, we should seek answers and start investigating the Confucius classrooms that are Big C Communist.
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