Why China wants you to learn Chinese

Many Americans are eager to learn, but some are concerned about China's motives behind 'Confucius Institutes.'

What do New York, Hawaii, Kansas, California, Mexico, France, Serbia, South Korea, Egypt, Australia, Russia, and Rwanda have in common?

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.

Without formal instructions, some CIs are nonetheless finding ways to meet their communities' language needs. The one at Michigan State University is developing digital training materials, San Francisco State University's CI has piloted two extracurricular programs for elementary school children, the institute in New York is helping 16 teachers get accredited and hopes to add 30 to 40 instructors next year, and the CI at the University of Kansas offers onsite courses for local corporations.

But as CIs in the US start up, some university faculty members remain skeptical of their presence on college campuses, raising concerns about the potential for political interference from the Chinese government.

"Of course, using the language to create a positive feeling toward China is political. There's no getting around that," says Elaine Gerbert, director of the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) at the University of Kansas.

"They don't call it a Communist Institute," jokes Shengli Feng, director of the Chinese Language Program at Harvard University. He sees the institutes as an obvious PR campaign.

Some top schools like Harvard have not accepted money from China to open language institutes. G. Cameron Hurst, director of Pennsylvania University's East Asian Studies program, doesn't want to be "in the business of the Chinese government telling us how" to teach Chinese.

Some professors fear that China will try to silence other viewpoints taught on campus. "It's very important to keep [CI and CEAS] separate," says Ms. Gerbert of the University of Kansas, to avoid any academic interference with, say, research on human rights in China.

Other instructors are more concerned about teaching quality. China's teaching materials do not address matters of second-language acquisition, says Christy Lao, director of San Francisco State University's CI. As for teachers from China, "they don't understand teaching and learning in the US." There are different cultures and pedagogies, she explains. American teachers in China would face the same problem.

There seems to be a "confusion of academic and non-academic goals," writes David Branner, a Chinese language professor at the University of Maryland, in an e-mail. Other government-backed culture-and-language centers, like the British Council, Alliance Française, and Goethe Institute, "are housed separately from universities. I would have expected the Confucius Institutes to be the same.... But most are not."

Part of the tension may stem from the fact that many institutes have appeared on campuses with little or no input from existing language programs.

But CI directors say the negative reaction is overblown. "Academic freedom is the most important thing," says Yong Zhao, an American who heads the CI at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. The concern is "understandable," but the level of concern is "unbelievable," he says. Meanwhile, the institutes are providing a forum for US-China cooperation and may truly enhance relationships – one of Beijing's stated goals.

"China is much more open to talking about their projects than they would have been 20 years ago," says Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has written extensively on China. China's willingness to engage with critics is "a substantial change," he says.

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