Op-Ed: In defense of the Confucius Institute

Let me start this by saying that I am inherently very biased. The Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota (CIUMN) played a major part in my high school Chinese program’s development, and without the CIUMN I don’t know if I would be studying Chinese today – and studying Chinese has played a huge part in shaping my life since high school. So I know first-hand just how beneficial it can be.

Let me also say that I understand the many problems with them as well – since the Chinese government has a large influence over the curriculum and what is taught at Confucius Institutes, they can create whatever picture they want for American students ignorant of how life actually is in China, especially about marginalized ethnic minorities in China, or neglect the ugly parts of Chinese history that the government censors in mainland China. In fact, I specifically remember an activity where schools from around Minneapolis all got assigned one ethnic minority group, then were given research materials to study from, and then all got together one Saturday, wearing the “traditional” outfits of the ethnic minority we were representing, and gave presentations in Mandarin about the group we were representing. Until I traveled to and studied in China, that activity was the only information I had about the Hui ethnic minority. China unquestionably tokenizes ethnic minorities to a large extent — and if you take what is presented at Confucius Institutes as the whole story, then they are indeed extremely problematic.

But here in the U.S., we have something China doesn’t — complete freedom of information. We have the ability to take advantage of the benefits that CIs provide — Chinese education by Chinese teachers, which in my high school experience were a rarity. I cannot emphasize how much better Chinese teachers teach Mandarin than even those native speakers who have been educated in the U.S.  — I have personally experienced both, from a student’s perspective as well as a teaching assistant, and found many flaws with the typical “Americanized” style of Mandarin teaching. These flaws are less tolerated by teachers like those at Confucius Institutes, and the opportunity to work with these teachers in a one-on-one setting is also invaluable to learning the language in a comprehensive and consistent way. This is particularly beneficial in grasping the tonal aspect, which is widely considered to be one of the most difficult parts of learning Chinese, as well as the area that most Americans learning Chinese are deficient in.

All of these opportunities at the Confucius Institute as a high school student turned me from a below-average language student into a passionate one who would settle for nothing less than traveling to China and experiencing the language and culture for myself. So that’s exactly what I did — I took a gap year and lived and studied in Beijing. It was there where I met an actual member of the Hui ethnic minority, who was one of my teachers, and learned to separate what was stereotyped in my understanding from what was actually true. It was there that I got to experience Chinese New Year in Inner Mongolia with my host family, members of the Mongolian ethnic minority. I truly believe that without the Confucius Institute’s language benefits and urging, I wouldn’t have made it to China to study, which helped me get past the limited understanding that had resulted from the narrow teaching that took place at the Confucius Institute while I was in high school.

Rejecting Confucius Institutes seems to be a pretty popular bipartisan political move right now as well. I remember Senator Rubio’s letter earlier in the semester, and of course the letter from Congressman Moulton that the Daily covered just a few weeks ago. CIs are drawing criticism for various reasons — one of which is that because they are overseen by the Chinese government, they represent a threat to our national interests and are a self-serving Chinese infiltration, to put it in very extreme terms. My personal response to that is — really? Isn’t what we need right now, at a time of enormous tension, to foster understanding between potential opponents at the most basic level possible — through language?

Another more liberal-sounding argument is rejecting these Chinese institutions on the basis of rejecting or not supporting the country due to its human rights violations. I do agree with the sentiment in Moulton’s letter that Confucius Institutes “distort academic discourse on China.” To that end, I ask: How is avoiding the country the solution? Simply boycotting will do the opposite of raising awareness of the inaccuracy of representation — in fact, due to the inherently closed nature of China (at least in terms of news), our perspective and awareness domestically would most likely decrease. Add that to the fact that the U.S. isn’t particularly good at dealing with our own ethnic internal issues, and the tune of “reject Confucius Institutes” seems pretty hypocritical. Isolationism, even couched behind moral grounds, however hypocritical those grounds may be, is never the way to further understanding. In order to alleviate the concerns that these politicians have, it’s not less understanding and transparency that is needed, it’s more.

That’s why I think Tufts, and universities in general, shouldn’t disaffiliate with Confucius Institutes. It’s not as if they are the only source of news or information about China that anyone has access to — and I’d argue that those interested in the courses that CIs have to offer will go beyond simply those courses and perspectives, instead researching more and coming to their own conclusions. The dangers and drawbacks are extremely important to note, but the benefits in education and in fostering interest in Chinese language and culture  are enormous and, in this current political and international climate, more important than ever.

Let me finish by saying that I’m fortunate enough to have been only benefitted by Confucius Institutes, never marginalized or harmed by them. Though I do love China, I try not to view it with rose-tinted glasses and know that there are numerous harmful policies directly implemented by the Chinese government related to ethnic minorities. I understand that my perspective isn’t complete on this issue and everything relating to it, and always appreciate other perspectives. If you would like to talk about any of this with me, please send me an email at noah.smith@tufts.edu or send me a message on Facebook.