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To strengthen ties with China, speak the language first

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The proposed US-China Cultural Engagement Act will alleviate both the problem of too few Americans studying in China and too few Chinese studying in the US by facilitating the expansion of language classes and exchange programs. Structurally, it allocates funds to establish 10 National Resource Centers at leading universities and a Foreign Language Resource Center to channel money into elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools. It also provides grants directly to state education agencies or local school districts that offer Chinese language or culture courses.

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Mastering a difficult language

The road to successful communication with China is a long one. Only 2.2 million of 290 million Americans speak Chinese, and at least 85 percent of them are of Chinese descent. This deficiency should be unsurprising given that 98 percent of US higher education language enrollment is in Western European languages. Creating interest in one of the most difficult languages in the world requires exchange programs for numerous parts of society.

The proposed law allocates money for both physical and virtual exchanges at all levels of education, as well as for NGOs and entertainers. In addition, Fulbright Scholar grants both to and from China will be more than doubled.

Those up in arms at the thought of spending $1.3 billion on language and exchange can relax: The US-China Cultural Engagement Act is not all cultural. Most notably, it allows for more foreign commercial service officers in the American Embassy and consular offices in China, more international trade experts at small business development centers throughout the US, and partial funding to American state export assistance centers in China.

Indeed, with $350 million directed toward building two new consular offices and upgrading resources that foster commercial activity, this bill might be more simply named the US-China Engagement Act.

Two-way enrichment

Thankfully this engagement is not one-way, as the bill also ensures improved handling of Chinese visa applications, and even inquires into the feasibility of expedited process for Chinese high school students and scientists. This year has already marked a period of change for visa policy.

Since January, Chinese businesspeople and tourists have been able to obtain 12-month, multiple-entry visas, an extension of the previous six-month limit. This policy recently expanded to include those traveling to the US on academic exchange and vocational training visits. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Beijing will reciprocate this policy for Americans.

The legislation proposed by Sens. Lieberman and Alexander, thus far largely unnoticed in the media, deserves immediate and strong public support.

Matt Williams was a 2004-2005 Fulbright Scholar at Tsinghua University and is a student at Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service program. Jerome Cohen is a Law Professor at New York University and an Adjunct Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.