Chinese alarm bells

In this new section, which will appear occasionally, we will present two points of view on the same topic. In our inaugural edition, Fordham's own Chester Finn and Asia Society's Chris Livaccari debate Confucius Classrooms, a K-12 Chinese language program for American schools subsidized by the Chinese government.

Is it possible that money-strapped U.S. educators—school and college alike—are selling their students’ birthrights to Beijing for a mess of free Mandarin lessons? Are we in the early stages of outsourcing our education system to the same country to which we’ve surrendered our manufacturing sector and entrusted our national debt?

Okay, that’s probably too dire, at least for now, but watch the Chinese education ministry extend its tentacles worldwide, from some 550 higher-ed programs (“Confucius Institutes”) already operating in ninety countries (including almost seventy on American shores) to the newer but no less worrisome K-12 language programs that are taking the U.S. by storm. These “Confucius Classrooms” are multiplying like, well, like everything else about China. One of Beijing’s chief U.S. partners in this venture, the Asia Society, has already opened twenty pilot sites in American public schools and seeks to launch eighty more by fall 2011. Besides that, some districts and states—notably North Carolina—are working directly with the Chinese government, while still more districts are turning to their local university-based Confucius Institute to get started.

The basic offer is surely tempting, and doubly so in a down economy: At little or no cost to you, offers the government of China, we will teach your students our language and culture. Indeed, we’ll staff the program with Chinese nationals to handle instruction (almost 5,000 of them currently roam the globe, secondary and higher education combined); we’ll subsidize their salaries and pay their airfare. We’ll even provide a free curriculum, textbooks, and materials. All you need do is give us the opportunity—and, of course, thank us and think well of us.

Although a noisy dust-up is underway in a middle school near Los Angeles (Hacienda Heights is the heavily-Hispanic community with a majority-Chinese school board), Confucius Classrooms are rolling along in public schools from Rhode Island to Oregon as their postsecondary counterparts multiply at colleges from Rutgers to Texas A&M to the University of Alaska. According to recent coverage in the New York Times, 325 Chinese teachers are now in U.S. classrooms via the College Board's "guest teacher" program, and many more when combined with the other avenues for winning Chinese dollars—er, yuan.

One can, of course, argue that this is a wonderful windfall that will assist young Americans to prepare for the myriad transactions they will inevitably engage in tomorrow with the world’s other superpower (assuming, that is, that the U.S. remains one).

One can also cite as precedent earlier powers that sought to cement their empires and solidify their dominance—of commerce, shipping, gold, cotton, slaves, political control, you name it—by getting the locals to learn their languages. That’s part of the histories of Spain, France, and England, even Portugal, Holland, Italy, Germany and, of course, Russia. Why shouldn’t China do the same?

And one can rue the apathy that most young Americans show toward learning other world languages, except possibly Spanish. We tend to assume that everyone on the planet is learning English in order to converse with us. That’s one reason the State Department, the military, and multinational corporations wind up training their own folks in the languages of the places they will work. Indeed, State has even helped pay for some of the Confucius Institutes as part of the post-9/11 push in critical-need languages.

I’m open to the possibility that America’s interests will be advanced if more of today’s children become fluent in Mandarin. Perhaps our schools and universities should substitute it for Italian, maybe even French. But we probably want more of them to learn Arabic, too, for similar reasons. Does that mean we should be receptive if the government of Syria or Yemen offers to pay for it in our public schools? Do we want the government of Myanmar subsidizing the study of Burmese?

China is in many respects more worrisome. The country itself is no friend. Rather, it’s our chief competitor, our chief creditor, and our chief rival or adversary in much of the globe. It is, in fact, the one nation on this planet that poses the greatest and most multifaceted threat to the United States. It already wields enormous influence in our economy, our foreign policy, our defense strategy—not to mention the clothes we put on our backs and the toys we buy for our kids. It is hacking everybody’s computers and emails. It is censoring communications and information whenever and wherever it can. It endangers its own schoolchildren in shoddy buildings and fails to protect them from cleaver-wielding assailants. It takes people it doesn’t like and shoots them in the head. It imprisons political dissidents till they grow sick and weak. It is the main impediment to serious sanctions against Iran. It is a menace to Japan, South Korea, and lots of other places.

China has its linguistic gun sights trained on those lands, too. A few days ago, the Times reported on Indonesia’s warm reception of pre-paid Mandarin instruction. The Chinese know full well that swaying the minds of young Indonesians will gradually ease the long-standing hostility that Jakarta has shown toward Beijing.

Similar reasoning in other neighborhoods is prompting the “Hanban”—part of China’s education ministry—to create Confucius language-training and culture-imparting programs around the globe. It’s all part of Hu Jintao’s strategy of projecting “soft power” around the world.

Is nobody alarmed by this development besides me and a few parents in Hacienda Heights?

Note: This piece reflects a correction. In a previous version, we erroneously attributed the 325 College Board "guest teachers" to Asia Society's network. Guest teachers are provided to Asia Society and other Confucius Classroom programs through the College Board (public schools) or National Association of Independent Schools (private schools).

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