- - Sunday, March 24, 2019


It’s apparent to all but the most obtuse observer of what’s going on in the world that the United States and China are engaged in a competition to see who’s going to dominate the world. The competition is not particularly friendly and it could turn ugly at any time.

America has always had a love-hate relationship with China. Both Roman Catholics and various Protestant denominations — Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian foremost among them — have over centuries dispatched missionaries to the Middle Kingdom. They have left schools, orphanages and hospitals as a Christian legacy to the Communists, who are, perfect irony, officially godless.

Communication has been difficult because of the absence of a spoken language expressed in Western terms. The Chinese written language is a collection of “logograms,” written characters that represent a word or phrase, and a minimum of these must be memorized to communicate. The minimum of such “characters” needed to communicate ranges from 2,500 to several thousands more. Any specialized writing, such as scientific or technological, requires its own “vocabulary.”

This has meant that Chinese educated in the Western tradition, i.e., in English, have an advantage over Americans who speak only the language of Shakespeare, and that, alas, includes just about all of us. We have a lot of homework ahead.

American colleges and universities have been running as fast as possible since the 1930s in pursuit of an understanding of China and the Chinese culture and language. Since the Communists took over in 1949, they have effectively used the West’s fascination with all things Chinese to enhance its prestige and ultimately its influence and control abroad. This has been helped by the presence of more than 30 million overseas Chinese in more than 136 different countries, who comprise the most widely spread ethnic group in the world. In Southeast Asia in particular, their skill with commerce has enabled Chinese domination of many local economies. The Chinese may pay tribute to Karl Marx but they’re hard-nosed capitalists where it counts.

American universities, ever on the scout for financial support, in more recent decades have initiated Chinese studies, often with the aid and financial support of the Chinese governments, and not just Communist governments. Some of these ties date from before World War II, and some of the closest ties were established between American academics and the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek.

The Beijing government established Confucius Institutes within American colleges and universities, funded by a Chinese government agency called Hanban, which matched Chinese government contributions to resources provided by the host university. These institutes have typically been directed by a professor from the host university and an “assistant director” from a Chinese university, and staffed in part by Chinese language instructors hired by Hanban or a Chinese partner university.

That’s where Beijing’s soft words usually end. A bipartisan report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, just released, raises a number of red flags (one might say) about who controls what. The Senate report says that “the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools,” down to having veto authority over events and activities included in the annual budget submitted to Hanban for approval. “Hanban provides no information to U.S. schools on how candidates for Chinese director and teacher positions at Confucius Institutes are screened or selected in China.”

Concern about what these Confucius Institutes actually are — whether they are propaganda and espionage arms of the Beijing government or actual institutes dedicated to higher learning — has led at least 10 American universities to close them down.

Faculty groups have been raising concerns about the institutes for years; the American Association of University Professors asked in 2014 that universities either close the institutes or renegotiate agreements to ensure “unilateral control” over all academic matters. The recent closures of several institutes follow criticism by public officials, mainly but not exclusively Republican. Some Democrats as well see the danger in taking money from foreign governments, particularly a government openly hostile to American interests. “Learning Chinese” means more than learning a few thousand logograms.

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