Why China wants you to learn Chinese
Many Americans are eager to learn, but some are concerned about China's motives behind 'Confucius Institutes.'
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Almost nothing, except that they now play host to the language-and-culture centers being mass-produced by the Chinese government with trademark Chinese speed and efficiency: 130 Confucius Institutes (CI) have been established in 50 countries over the past few years. The United States already has a dozen, with several more in the works. Their purpose, say Beijing officials, is to promote the Chinese language and enhance China's relationships around the world.
Against the backdrop of China's rise as an economic power, many Americans are eager to learn the language. Yet some are concerned about China's motives.
"The purpose is to teach language," says an official at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. "We want to meet the growing demand for Chinese language instruction." Hanban, the department in China's Ministry of Education that oversees foreign language programs, says on its website that it also hopes to promote friendly relationships.
In fact, the CI is only one initiative in a large-scale charm offensive that China has launched in recent years. Education, culture, foreign aid, the Olympics – all these "soft power" tools aim to attract people to China's rising status rather than intimidate them, say analysts.
"They have very high expectations," says Michael Levine, director of the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization in New York that seeks to strengthen US-China ties. "They are very driven about their goals," with language probably ranking in the top ten, Mr. Levine says.
The institutes are joint ventures, almost always housed within a university. A partner school in China sends teachers; the local school provides office space and staff; China also gives institutes in the US grants ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, which the local universities usually match. Finally, Hanban dispatches a representative to give the official stamp of approval.
But after the initial fanfare, many CIs are left quite bare: an office and a few staff members with little idea of how to proceed. The country's first program at the University of Maryland has had only a few dozen students since opening two years ago. The two teachers promised from China just arrived last month. It took a year to figure out how to proceed, says administrator Rebecca McGinnis. It's a matter of "getting that big wheel started."
"We don't tell [CIs] what to do," explains Wang Ying, a consular officer in New York. "Each institute is different because each location has different needs."
Some program directors (all Americans) joke that, for once, they want China to provide more central guidance.
Certainly, the demand for Chinese language instruction is rising. China, the world's fourth-largest economy, continues to grow 9.5 percent a year on average and is a top recipient of direct foreign investment. No wonder, as its Ministry of Education predicts, 100 million people around the world will be taking Chinese lessons by 2010.
The two CI language classes at the University of Maryland last fall included working professionals. Some had visited China and decided to learn the language; others needed it for work.