Slandering Confucius Institutes belies language students' experiences
Published: Feb 02, 2021 10:18 AM

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

The Confucius Institute (CI) Program was under fierce attacks by politicians of the Trump administration during the past three years. Groundless allegations from both the Capitol Hill and the Foggy Bottom have stigmatized the language teaching program and forced universities to sever ties with their CIs, which cost the American public access to learning Putonghua and knowing more about China. It's time for politicians to end their defamation and start realizing the true value CI programs can offer.

Mel Gurtov, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, conducted nearly 100 interviews of university officers, CI staff and teachers in communities with Confucius classrooms, who cited the CIs as "victims of China bashing." 

He observed that not one of the interviewees mentioned China's political interference and the CIs performed exactly as promised. The interviewees uniformly expressed gratitude for their CI's contributions to the community's cultural awareness and students' international competency. 

He has also said in a blog named In defense of Confucius Institutes last November, "What the administration is doing, in our name, is cutting off our nose to spite our face - denying communities, schools, and laboratories the opportunities for cultural enrichment, people-to-people interaction, and mutual understanding precisely at a moment when these are desperately needed." 

Erik Eging, highlighting his own experience of studying at a CI while at university, told PieNews, "If the CI was trying to pull the wool over our eyes, students wouldn't keep showing up. And yet we have students who in spite of the negative rhetoric continually show up because they see the value."

The CI is an educational and cultural program that is part of its host institution but not as a separate entity. Each CI program is established from the voluntary application of the host institution, and is under the administration of the host institution that ensures the program is in line with the host institution's mission, values, culture, and tradition. 

It is widely recognized that as programs within the host institution, the CIs are managed by the host institution and abide by laws of the host country and operate in accordance with regulations and policies of the host institution. 

On January 27, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US President Joe Biden's nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations. Several GOP senators, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, again grilled the nominee on her speech in Savannah State University in October 2019 and suggested that she had close ties with the CI program, which has been slandered by them as Chinese propaganda and influence efforts in the US. 

Thomas-Greenfield defended herself saying she had accepted the invitation from the university not directly from the CI, and it had been a "huge mistake" to accept the invitation. "I am not naive about China's malign influence, and I know very well the activities of the CI. And I strongly support Congress's crackdown on Confucius Institutes." 

Despite their repeated allegations, the senators didn't present any solid evidence to prove malfeasance by the CIs, nor do we believe there is any. Instead, as has been emphasized in the past and confirmed by a congressional Government Accountability Office report published on February 28, 2019, the CI Headquarters doesn't control or influence in any meaningful way the content or the curriculum of courses, and doesn't advocate in any way that political speech should be a part of language or cultural teaching and learning at CIs.

It has also been echoed by Sen. Tom Carper from Delaware, former Ranking Member of Subcommittee on Investigations. He confirmed at a hearing held on February 28, 2019 that "as best we can determine, these Institutes spread around our country do not appear to be overt efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to spread pro-China or anti-American propaganda. There's also no evidence we've uncovered that suggests that they're a center for Chinese espionage efforts or any other illegal activity."

CI programs strive to address the increasing demand for Chinese language and culture education, and have provided life-changing educational opportunities for students of different countries to engage with other parts of the world. There are stories of students in different universities overcoming challenges and preparing themselves as responsible global citizens with help from CI programs. 

It is time for American politicians to stop the politicizing and stigmatizing of these programs and give the right to choose back to the universities and Chinese learners.
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