China and the World

Language problems

Controversy erupts over Confucius Institutes

Language problems

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Confucius and China’s Communist Party were once enemies. After all, Mao Zedong used his “criticise Confucius” campaign in the Cultural Revolution to attack his foes. So it’s somewhat paradoxical that the ancient sage has been taking a lead role in Beijing’s quest for soft power. There are now some 700 language institutes bearing his name in 100 countries, all of them intended to spread Chinese language and culture.

Confucius also found himself thrust into a new controversy this month, after the US State Department announced that foreign academics teaching at pre-college levels must leave the United States by the end of June due to violation of their visa terms.

That included teachers at Confucius Institutes, which are run in cooperation with Chinese partner universities and overseen by the Chinese Ministry of Education. (Typically, the host universities receive a yearly fee and the Ministry pays the salaries for visiting Chinese instructors.) In the eyes of the Chinese media this meant that the move was not just a technical decision about immigration, but a deliberate attempt to strike at Chinese interests.

Faced with warnings of damage to Sino-American relations, the US government then decided that teachers will not have to leave the country after all.

Why the U-turn? Washington needs China’s support on global issues like Iran and it may have decided that a spat over the ancient sage wasn’t worth the bother. More practically, American schools want subsidised Chinese language classes. So too should American industry, if it sees a long term future selling goods to Chinese consumers.

The two governments likely wanted likewise to steer clear of a political storm in a year which the US will hold presidential elections and China too will see a leadership change. Bear in mind relations are also recovering from two recent diplomatic emergencies, following incidents in which Chinese nationals entered US consulates for protection (see issues 138 and 149).

The two sides should also learn something from the spat. The State Department, which insists that the visa issue is simply a regulatory matter, seems to have overlooked how the move might be seen by the Chinese. That was careless. On the other hand, there has been overreaction in China. An editorial in the People’s Daily blamed Washington for having a “culture crisis” and for using the Chinese as “scapegoats and witches” to deflect attention from its weak domestic economy. Others queried whether the Chinese should strike back by crying foul at a cultural invasion of American sport, film and food culture.

But for Beijing, winning the diplomatic battle doesn’t necessarily mean kudos at home. Many Chinese disapprove of the Confucius Institutes on financial grounds, with a common view that China shouldn’t be building schools for rich Americans.

Confucius Institutes are greeted with mixed feelings in America too. Some are fans of the initiative. “Somebody came to your country and opened classes to teach you one of most complicated languages for free and you tried such ‘creative’ ways to push them away,” complained one contributor on a Wall Street Journal blog. But others disagree, citing ulterior motives. Reportedly, senior Politburo member Li Changchun has referred to Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.

Confusion over these educational establishments shows China has power, ambition and wealth, but still lacks the ability to win the hearts and minds of many Americans. Possibly more telling is the fact that China’s top leaders have all sent their children to American universities. It still remains a long shot for Barack Obama to send his daughters to a Confucius Institute anytime soon…

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