By Michael Ardaiolo
On May 17th, the United States Department of State sent out a policy directive to American universities sponsoring Confucius Institutes. It states that Chinese academics teaching grade-school levels at institutions without the proper accreditation are violating the terms of their visas and must leave the country at the end of the current term.
Confucius Institutes are non-profit public entities sponsored by the P.R.C. to teach Mandarin, spread Chinese culture and enable cultural exchanges abroad. There are more than 60 of these in the United States alone, and most are affiliated with universities. They are an attempt by the Chinese government to establish a bedding of soft power worldwide.
While the institutes have spread quickly since their introduction in 2004, they have not been without critics. According to a thorough article by Don Starr in the European Journal of Education, “These criticisms centre round improper influence over teaching and research, industrial and military espionage, surveillance of Chinese abroad and undermining Taiwanese influence as part of the reunification plan.”
Universities have also been warned not to substitue their proper China or East Asian department with a Confucius Institute for fear of loss of objectivity. The University World News took note of a warning from an expert on Australia-China relations:
Professor Jocelyn Chey says academics should be aware of potential bias when Confucius institutes sought to undertake teaching or research as part of a university’s mainstream activities. Because of the institutes’ close links with the Chinese government and the Communist Party, Chey said this could lead at best to a “dumbing down” of research and at worst could produce propaganda.
If these fears are unfounded though, a properly managed Confucius Institute could very well provide a helpful introduction to China and a welcoming atmosphere for those curious about the country. They could also be used as strategic diplomacy tools. (In a pinch, they are also excellent fodder for your favorite fake news shows!)
The U.S. Department of State takes the positive view of the Confucius Institutes. So, do not automatically assume fear of a communist uprising is sparking this crackdown. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Critics of the centers have called them propaganda vehicles for the Chinese government. But it’s far from certain what led to the current policy directive by the State Department, particularly as the two countries have recently emphasized the importance of academic and cultural exchange, through efforts like the 100,000 Strong Initiative, an Obama-administration pledge to double the number of Americans studying in China.
The problem seems to lie in the use of improperly validated teachers at the institutes. Apparently, the use of students or visiting academics as teachers has become a normal practice. “It notes that while visitors can come as ‘teachers’ or ‘professors/research scholars,’ foreign professors, academics, and students at the university level are prohibited from teaching in public or private schools at the precollege level.”
For an expat in China, this may sound all too familiar. Foreign nationals working at language schools without the proper credentials… A looming crackdown by the national government to deport these individuals… Quick! Cue a douche-y Fox News host to lambast foreigners and stir up nationalist fever!
It would be a reach to somehow draw a connection from recent pronouncements in China to this push by the U.S. Department of State. Both establishments involved in making these decisions are lumbering bureaucracies. To conceive, develop and initiate reactionary protocol in a matter of days is all but impossible. Maybe it’s all just a media-friendly coincidence.
Regardless, it is always smart to play by the rules while living in a foreign country, no matter which direction you call home. It is tough to blame a government (no matter their reputation) for wanting to round-up people working illegally in their country and send them back from which they came.
Exactly how these governments choose to send this message is still debatable though! Which do you prefer? Slamming fist vs. Boring memo