Senate questions Biden’s UN ambassador nominee over speech at Chinese-funded institute

Linda Thomas-Greenfield takes tough line on China to ward off criticism for talk she gave at Confucius Institute

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN) for U.S. President Joe Biden, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Thomas-Greenfield spent nearly four decades at the State Department and served as assistant secretary for African affairs before leaving early in the Trump administration. Photographer: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to the UN is vowing to bring a tough approach on to the body after coming under scrutiny for a 2019 speech at a Chinese-funded Confucius Institute at Georgia’s Savannah State University.

Several senators raised the issue of the speech during private meetings before Linda Thomas-Greenfield's confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under the Obama administration, mainly addressed US-Chinese competition for influence in Africa in the 2019 speech.

She made the speech as a senior vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group consultancy, which she joined after the Trump administration expelled her from the State Department in 2017 along with other senior foreign service officers.

“Truthfully, I wish I had not accepted this specific invitation, and I came away from the experience alarmed at the way the Confucius Institute was engaging with the black community in Georgia,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate at her hearing.

“It reminded me of what I’d seen in Africa – the Chinese government going after those in need, with fewer resources.

"I gave the speech as a way of recommending to Africans how they can address their challenges with China.

“If I’m confirmed, I commit to working with this committee to counter China at the UN, to fight against all efforts by the Chinese government to add harmful language to UN resolutions, and to resist China’s efforts to overfill key UN positions with Chinese citizens.”

China runs Confucius Institutes on university campuses across the world with the stated goal of promoting Chinese language and culture.

Savannah State University followed the lead of others in closing its Confucius Institute last year amid allegations that the centres restrict academics and import Chinese state censorship.

FBI director Christopher Way told Congress in 2018 that his agency was monitoring the institutes, and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo designated the their headquarters in the US as a Chinese foreign mission last year.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield said she supported efforts by China hawks in Congress to crack down on Confucius Institutes in the US.

She said she delivered the speech as part of an invitation from Savannah State University, a historically black university, to take part in a broader series of events encouraging students of colour to join the foreign service.

The university gave Ms Thomas-Greenfield a $1,500 honorarium for her visit and address.

Her pledge to take a tough stance on China echoed many of those made by senior Biden Cabinet officials at their confirmation hearings, amid bipartisan pressure.

They included Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.

“The tougher language will be calling the Chinese out whenever we see them crossing line, particularly as it relates to their aggressive actions both here in the United States and across the globe,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate.

“It also may mean that we have to use other instruments that we have, including the possibility of sanctions, including the possibility of flexing our muscle.”

“None of us want to encourage or support a conflict and that is not the intent here. The intent here is to encourage the Chinese to change their behaviour.”

She mostly breezed through her confirmation hearing without much other controversy.

It did not appear as if the speech would derail the possibility that the Senate would vote to confirm her as UN ambassador.

“There isn’t a person sitting in this room that hasn’t given a speech that they don’t wish they had back,” said James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee.

“I personally am not going to hold one speech against somebody.”