School grant funded by China upsets Calif. town

HACIENDA HEIGHTS, Calif. —Bobby Fraker is taking a stand against what she perceives to be a sinister threat from across the Pacific, right here in her suburban Southern California community of tree-lined streets and stucco homes.

At a recent school board meeting, Fraker and a dozen or more older, mostly white opponents of a Chinese government program that will fund a middle-school language class delivered fist-shaking denunciations.

"These children have young brains that are very malleable and they can be indoctrinated with things that America would not like," Fraker implored board members, who approved the plan in January.

Communities across the United States, from Smithfield, R.I., to Medford, Ore., have welcomed the Confucius Classroom grants from the Chinese government, like the one proposed for Cedarlane Middle School.

But Confucius is not going down smoothly in Hacienda Heights, a middle-class town about 16 miles east of downtown Los Angeles with a history of racial tensions between longtime residents and relatively recent Chinese newcomers. Ethnic Chinese comprise the majority of the school board.

The Cedarlane student body, meanwhile, is overwhelmingly Hispanic. Three out of every five students at the school qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, a poverty indicator, according to state data.

The dustup may portend trouble for China's efforts to expand its cultural clout by bankrolling language programs in primary and secondary schools across the United States.

"I'm sure this will become a standard dispute," said University of Southern California public policy professor Nicholas Cull, who tracks China's efforts to shape its image abroad through programs like Confucius Classrooms. "People in America are very suspicious of ideas from the outside."

Chen Zhunmin, who directs the Chinese consulate's education office in Los Angeles, insisted the program has nothing to do with communism, as some of the local critics contend. He said Confucius Classroom and other programs were created to address misunderstandings about his country.