Is it wise for US to ban Confucius Institutes?

By Yuan Zheng Source: Global Times Published: 2020/9/7 10:27:31

A competitor performs Chinese calligraphy during the preliminary contest of the 10th Chinese Bridge language proficiency competition for the midwest of the United States at the Confucius Institute of Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, the United States, April 23, 2011.File Photo:Xinhua

As Washington steps up its crackdown on China, it is also ramping up efforts to drive Confucius Institutes out of the US. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that "The Confucius Centers are a propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party… they are not cultural centers."

As China narrows the gap with the US in terms of national strength, these same politicians from Washington exaggerate this purported "China threat" for political purposes. Given that the ghost of McCarthyism still haunts the US, it is no surprise to see Confucius Institutes become their latest target.

The establishment of Confucius Institutes in the US is the result of bilateral choices. This cooperation has allowed for the teaching and promotion of Putonghua - which has been evaluated and approved by US universities. However, despite academic achievements, US politicians like Pompeo have maliciously tarnished this sound cooperation at every turn.

Under current US government, all Confucius Institutes in the US would possibly be shut down. But it is hard to see right now what the future holds. Anyone forecasting what might happen with current China-US relations needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Confucius Institutes have boosted Americans' understanding of China, which is becoming increasingly important worldwide. In addition, the institutes have substantially benefited American students with higher education quality and even job opportunities. The establishment of Confucius Institutes has simply been about linguistic and cultural exchanges. But now the Trump administration has pointed the gun at the institutes.

The complete closure of Confucius Institutes in the US will narrow the channels for cultural exchanges between China and the US. But the door for Americans to learn Chinese will remain open. In terms of US national interests, it is unwise to close all Confucius Institutes in the US. 

Long before China and the US established diplomatic ties, some Americans had already started learning Chinese language. This suited US national interests - after all, people who understand Chinese culture are needed and language training is indispensable for activities, such as gathering intelligence. 

After China's reform and opening-up, more and more Americans came to the Chinese mainland to learn Putonghua. Confucius Institutes have expanded access to Chinese culture with remarkable and applaudable achievements. It is a pity that the bad political situation in the US will force Confucius Institutes to close down. The US government is accountable for such antics. Even so, the American people are unlikely to stop learning Chinese.

The loss of these intellectual fountains of Chinese thought in the US is invisible but tangible. It not only damages the image of US universities but it also weakens the teaching strength of the US education system. However, the growing number of Confucius Institutes globally is undoubtedly seen as a dangerous signal by McCarthyist politicians in the US - any disturbances in China-US relations might put Confucius Institutes under extraordinary risks for their existence. 

For purely political purposes, shifting the blame for US domestic problems to China is the endgame of Trump's reelection hopes. The wily Trump administration's hysterical movements have gone after personal gain to assault China. 

Pompeo used to be a "marginalized" political figure before Trump's presidency. And his role as the decision-maker in Trump's team is consistent with current US administration's "anti-China" foreign policy. Shutting down Confucius Institutes is actually a trick from a conspiracy minded cabal who exaggerate the "China threat" theory. They deliberately exaggerate Confucius Institutes as organizations that are infiltrating and cultivating spies for their political purposes.

Despite this, now might be an opportune diplomatic moment for Confucius Institutes as well as other Chinese culture and language training bodies to adjust themselves with new global outreach and learning paradigms. 

The author is director and senior fellow of Division of American Diplomacy Studies, Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


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