GW opens doors to China with Confucius Institute

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China’s growing diplomatic soft power was on display just a few city blocks from the White House, as George Washington University opened the District’s first Confucius Institute promoting the rising Asian giant’s language and culture Wednesday.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated building that will be the home of the institute on the university campus also drew a number of local officials.

GW is now one of some 90 universities in the United States that have a Confucius Institute, an exercise in public diplomacy by Beijing designed to create a cultural footprint overseas to complement the country’s rising economic might. Just this week, China also opened a new institute at New York’s Columbia University, and Colorado State University and the University of Tennessee plan ribbon-cuttings later this week.

While GW may be the first in the District to have one, other Confucius Institutes are located in the region, including programs at George Mason University and the University of Maryland. But Chinese officials said opening an institute inside the nation’s capital represented a milestone.

“We have almost 470 Confucius Institutes [worldwide], but the one here at George Washington is very key and important because of the potential,” said Xu Lin, director-general at the Office of Chinese Language Council International.

GW President Steven Knapp said he’s had a long-standing partnership with some of the members of the Confucius Institute, so that formally establishing an institute was “bound to happen.” The institute will be offering non-credit Chinese language and culture courses to students.

“Anyone wanting to learn language and culture will have access to the instructional resources of the Confucius Institute, and we’ll be reaching out to their campuses as well as teaching on our own campuses,” Mr. Knapp said.

Confucius Institutes come with Chinese teachers, textbooks and an entire program, as well as a generous fund to every university that adopts the program.

“The Confucius Institute makes George Washington stand out more on the map for Chinese language studies and it brings more talent Chinese faculty to the university,” said senior Chinese major Ian Everhart.

One sign of China’s growing clout in U.S. academic circles is the sheer number of Chinese students now studying in American schools. University officials say that more than 1,200 Chinese undergraduate and graduate students attend the school some 40 percent of the total foreign student population. The Chinese student contingent has increased more than fourfold since Mr. Knapp came to the school just six years ago.

The establishment of these institutes have come with criticism as well as praise, and not every school that has been approached about the institutes has accepted them, in part because of fears over ties between China’s authoritarian Communist government and the quasi-official agency set up to promote the institutes. Some of the criticism accuses the institute of banning learning on particular topics ranging from Tibet to the Dalai Lama.

In Canada, McMaster University recently announced plans to shutter its institute and two other universities declined to serve as hosts in part of human rights concerns and requirements that institute staff have no ties to groups such as the Falun Gong that the Chinese government considers hostile.

Defenders compare the Confucius Institutes to other foreign cultural outreach programs such as France’s Alliance Francaise program and Germany’s Goethe Institutes, both of which have Washington D.C. offices.

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