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A Cappella

Chinese Netizens: To Export Culture, We First Need Stronger Values

You can't tell, but he's quite disappointed

That was fast. Although Confucius Institutes have only been in the United States since 2005, the American government is already showing signs of doubt. On May 17, the U.S. State Department issued a new directive regarding Confucius Institutes in the U.S., which states that all Confucius Institutes must obtain American accreditation, even though they don’t seek to grant degrees. In addition, the directive also said that the J-1 Visas held by many teachers at these institutes will not be extended, meaning some of them will have to leave the U.S. by June 30. [NB: The State Department later clarified that the directive was "sloppy and incomplete," and despite appearances did not mean teachers would have to leave, or that Confucius Institutes would need to apply for separate accreditation. -Ed.]

The move has caused quite a stir in China. The Global Times published an op-ed titled, “Why is Washington so scared of Confucius?”, stating that this directive will cause a great deal of trouble for Confucius Institutes in the U.S., and that “the US obviously wants this.” Other newspapers in China echoed this sentiment, and blamed the U.S. government for creating unnecessarily troubles and “harming the friendship between the Chinese and American people.”

What about education for Chinese children?

While Chinese newspapers have maintained a united front against this directive, Chinese netizens are much less sympathetic to the troubles faced by Confucius Institutes. @淘宝时尚潮流排行榜 exclaimed that sending volunteer teachers of Confucius Institutes back to China is “the most meaningful thing that the U.S. has ever done in its 300 years of history.” He continued, “There are so many schools in western China that desperately need teachers; you can only call yourself a volunteer if that’s where you go,” linking to a picture of a broken classroom from (presumably) western China (see below). Many netizens echoed his views, and complained that the Chinese government does not put accessible education for its own children as a top priority. 

Confucius says: Show me the money?

Other complaints about these Confucius Institutes include allegations of corruption, and a lack of fealty to the Chinese cultural values the institutions claim to represent. A number of netizens claimed that so-called “princelings” (those coming from good political stock) and Communist Party officials have received educational grants from the Chinese government under the name of Confucius Institutes, and they have also put their own children in these Institutes as volunteer teachers. As @幽静迷途A wrote, “They only have one goal through Confucius Institutes—to use Chinese taxpayers’ money to pay for their children’s American green card!” 

A classroom purportedly in Western China, looking a bit threadbare

Where is all that money coming from, anyway? Many netizens expressed concern about the financing of Confucius Institutes. @简直 tweeted: “The important thing is how these institutes are being financed. The media should ask the Department of Education, where is the money coming from? Is it coming from expenses for educating our citizens? Is it coming from foreign aid expenses? Is it coming from marketing expenses? Is it coming from expenses to ‘maintain stability?’” That last expense, known as 维稳费 in Chinese, is a euphemism for government payments to quell unrest and otherwise maintain a “harmonious society.”

Don’t brainwash me!

Many Weibo commenters seem to regard Confucius Institutes as brainwashing facilities. Netizens have widely circulated a quote allegedly made by Benno Schmidt, former President of Yale University, in support of this view. According to these netizens, Schmidt had said, “China’s higher education is the biggest joke in human history. It doesn’t have any real universities.” In fact, Mr. Schmidt never said anything like that. Nonetheless, Chinese netizens didn’t doubt the validity of the rumor, and no one bothered to check whether it is true or not.

Even though Schmidt did not actually make that comment, the fact that so many netizens bought into it shows that there are real concerns regarding the Chinese style of education. Many worry that Confucius Institutes, by dint of their provenance, cannot be safe havens for the free speech that free academic inquiry requires. @历史老袁 complained, “These Institutes just want to export their own values, but they don’t allow freedom of discussion.”

Values? What values?

Even those netizens who are not angry are nonetheless skeptical of the purpose of Confucius Institutes. Their essential complaint: “What’s the point?” @青稞酒A is deeply confused about what values China has left to teach. “China exporting its own culture and value system to other countries? You’ve got to be kidding me! What values and culture are you talking about? Materialism, corruption, nakedness, poison, and pollution? Confucius Institutes are truly a waste of taxpayer money!”

Indeed, netizens cannot bring themselves to embrace the Confucius Institutes’ stated mission because they still view China’s current culture and value system as deeply problematic. Why promote China to the outside when so many problems still remain unsolved at home? As well-known investor and microblogger Wang Ran (@王冉) pointed out, if the Chinese culture ever wants to present itself on the global stage, “It will not come as the result of government promotion…[China] must have strong core values [and] free space for creativity.” His implication was clear: We’re not there yet.

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A Cappella

A Cappella was born in China, but she spent her formative years between China, Canada, and the U.S. As a recent graduate of Yale, A Cappella is excited to return to China to work upon graduation, and she looks forward to exploring the changing landscape of China’s society and economy.