On the heels of recent resumption of vehemently negative press surrounding Confucius Institutes (CIs), non-profit educational programs affiliated with the People’s Republic of China, President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this month, which includes a provision that bars US institutions from receiving Pentagon funding if they host a CI. For universities that want to maintain their CI, new regulations will require a more transparent accounting of funding sources and usage, undoubtedly complicating the relationship between Hanban and American host universities. This conversation came to a head after the University of North Florida decided to close its CI on August 16. While CIs are indeed obvious manifestations of Chinese soft power projections abroad, certain concerns have been hyperbolic.
Ted Cruz, a key sponsor of the legislation, attested that CIs “are a key way the regime infiltrates American higher education to silence criticism and sanitize education about China.” While it is true that CIs are not teaching about China’s political and historical culture as it relates to a burgeoning international geopolitical embattlement, it is a stretch to profess that CIs are attempting to subvert American teaching of China. CIs are first and foremost channels for pushing social and contemporary cultural depictions of China. And while academic self-selection may attempt to place rose-colored glasses atop the noses of naïve Americans, neither China nor any other country would ever establish soft power mechanisms that choose to depict negative elements of their society.
What is missing from this debate is a personal account of how CIs actually affect American communities. Luckily, I am able to provide an example: witnessing a Confucius Institute establish a partnership with my local school system in Versailles, Kentucky, while I lived in China and Taiwan for three years. My mother is a teacher at an elementary school in Versailles which has hosted Mandarin teachers through the University of Kentucky’s CI for the past seven years. Through my mom’s extraversion, I met four different CI-sponsored teachers in my hometown and have become close friends with some. When visiting for my Master’s graduation from Nanjing University, Chun Yang, a CI-sponsored teacher, and her family even housed us at their home outside of Beijing’s sixth ring.
This is not just about my family making Chinese friends, though. Kids in my small Kentucky town are learning Mandarin. Families in Versailles which had previously only known the China that was depicted on TV are now getting to know real people that embody the country and culture. And although hawkish critics relegate CI teachers simply as CCP propaganda mouthpieces, I know first-hand that is patently untrue. Chun has a great sense of humor and is now a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky. Another CI teacher confessed to my family that they loved how much cleaner the air was than in Tianjin and that they never wanted to go back to China. Some indeed toe the party-line, but some are also real people that are earnestly engaging in cross-cultural exchange.
The point is, while there are indeed problems with CIs, these specific problems are not insurmountable. As the bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate, these partnerships present an unmatched means of humanizing both sides, especially in communities that would otherwise never engage with China. And we can get these partnerships to work better: we absolutely do not need to unilaterally legislate against their existence.
Logan Pauley is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, DC.