Beijing's Confucius Institute effort on American campuses has its ancestry in Republic of China, Republic of Korea, and perhaps other countries’ efforts to “do well by doing good” in American academia. It should not be viewed as uniquely insidious, in spite of China’s exceptionally rapid economic and strategic ascent in recent years. To view the CIs through the prism of a looming Chinese threat to the core elements of American national life, material, military, or moral, is a mistake.
Nowadays, Big China is indeed on a roll, publicly entertaining a “Chinese Dream” of national “rejuvenation,” but at the same time pondering how to be received by others as something more attractive than a gate crasher. The leadership’s steady concern, for the past decade or more, with Public Diplomacy—combined with its bulging coffers and the never-ending reminders of America's Wow Factor on the world stage (LeBron James, “Transformers,” Starbucks)—are leading Official China to grapple with the problem of what defines China for its own inhabitants and what defines China for everyone else on earth.
Lest we forget, China has a gigantic, marvelous cultural repertoire, worthy of world interest and respect. From the first Archaeological Exhibition to visit the U.S. in the 1970s, through the "China: Seven Thousand Years of Discovery" show that dazzled Americans in the 1980s, and ever since, China has quite properly found Americans eager to see and learn more about a wondrous civilization so different from their own.
Moreover,as Big China has gotten bigger on the world stage, learning about China has become a pressing goal for widening swathes of American students, teachers, and administrators.
At the core of that growing interest is the Chinese language itself. Happily for the U.S., there is a big market now for Chinese language study. Anyone who gets into it quickly realizes that Chinese language and Chinese culture are inseparable. We owe it to ourselves to start with the language when we can.
The problem is that, in any educational institution, language instruction costs money and competes for scarce resources. China's willingness to finance a Chinese language instruction worldwide, speaks to that financial need, at least at many less prestigious schools.
On its face, I would argue that expansion of Chinese language instruction in America is a good thing, and that it should be welcomed. If a school can't do it alone, the language-instruction resources made available by a CI should be utilized, assuming that the instructors are competent to teach American students and willing to adhere to a set of commitments to ethically responsible classroom behavior.
These requirements should include a stated commitment to tolerate diverse viewpoints, and a signed commitment not to use any academic threats or pressures against those of divergent political or ethical opinions.
Such clear affirmations of academic freedom should be specified in each school’s agreement with Hanban, the Chinese agency sponsoring Confucius Institutes. If Hanban cannot accept such stipulations, then there should be no agreement. The responsibility for determining that these commitments are being upheld should reside solely in the hands of the host institution.
That said, I favor giving CIs the benefit of the doubt, until specific problems arise at individual institutions. If serious (not spurious or frivolous) complaintsabout the behavior of a CI teacher should arise, the matter should be investigated and handled by the host institution, whose sovereignty should be stipulated and agreed to with the Hanban. Ideally, Hanban would not try to derail such investigations; any threats to pull support would have to be rejected.
I have long felt that a formless fear of a nameless "China Tide" lurks below the surface of the American discourse on China. Noxious emanations from China seem to threaten Americans in their daily lives and in their homes, or to offend their sensibilities: contaminated pet food or doctored medicines; fear of growing throngs of Gucci-gobbling tourists; fear of Chinese workers making what we once made for ourselves; legions of geeky, malevolent cyber-invaders.
For most Americans, China's political system is not a pretty sight, and we would not want it established, or propagated, in our own environment. Should an individual Confucius Institute pursue those goals in the U.S., we would rightly and urgently tell the CI's to go elsewhere.
But that, if I understand it correctly, is not what the CIs are doing. If the CIs are teaching Chinese language effectively to legions of young Americans who would otherwise not have an opportunity to experience that language and to begin to touch China's cultural environment through language, I say good on them. If a CI, or a CI instructor, oversteps the line, host schools should step in, address the problem and push the “reset” button without erasing the whole CI file. To treat the whole CI phenomenon as another alarming surge of the nameless China Tide strikes me as itself an implicit denial, not a defense, of American liberal traditions Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty, but summary or pre-emptive administrative action is something else again.
Finally, for the sake of discussion, I hope others, including working academics, might comment on how subjects involving deeply (but not universally) held religious or poltical beliefs, at any number of American educational institutions operated and funded by religious organizations or religio-political organizations, are treated. The issues raised in this discussion, paradoxically, may turn out not to be solely about China after all.