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US asks Taiwan to fill void as Confucius Institutes close

American universities look for alternative for learners of Mandarin

NEW YORK -- As Confucius Institutes are shuttered across university campuses in America due to academic freedom concerns, the top U.S. representative to Taiwan is calling on the Mandarin-speaking democracy to fill the void.

Taiwan can "play a key role" in addressing interest among U.S. students in learning Mandarin -- and should use the opportunity to tout its culture and democracy, Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, told Nikkei Asia.

Confucius Institutes, which offer Mandarin language and culture classes on U.S. campuses, are being closed rapidly by host universities concerned about Chinese Communist Party influence on their academic freedom. The U.S. State Department labeled its headquarters a "foreign mission" of China last August, hastening their decline.

"The CCP considers Taiwan -- and many other subjects -- to be politically sensitive," Christensen said. "China's sensitivities should not dictate the academic environment or curriculum on U.S. campuses."

Conversely, he said, "Taiwan shares the U.S. commitment to intellectual and academic freedom."

The U.S. Taiwan Education Initiative, launched last year, provides a framework for the two to increase educational exchanges -- usually a lightweight political topic, but one which carries significance due to Washington's moves to end education alliances with Beijing.

While the initiative's stipulations are not binding, they have already resulted in an expansion in bilateral education programs which will see more Taiwanese teachers go to the U.S. to teach Mandarin.

"Learning Mandarin from Taiwanese teachers means learning Mandarin in an environment free from censorship or coercion," Christensen said.

Confucius Institutes have garnered controversy since they were established in 2004, due to accusations of censoring education on sensitive topics, such as Taiwan and Tibet.

Staffers at the institutes have also been accused of attempting to influence the curricula of existing Asian Studies programs at affiliated universities, despite being academically separate.

In 2018, Congress passed a spending bill that cut Department of Defense funding for Chinese language programs at universities that host Confucius Institutes. The move led dozens of universities to close their centers.

In August 2020, Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state, called the institutes "an entity advancing Beijing's global propaganda and malign influence campaign."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing in October that the institutes "serve as a bridge for people around the world to learn the Chinese language, understand China, and strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and other countries."

"Out of ideological bias and political expediency, some U.S. politicians, such as Pompeo, deliberately undermined the cultural and educational exchanges and cooperation between China and the United States by discrediting Confucius Institutes and interfering with their normal operations," he added.

At present, only 55 U.S. universities still host Confucius Institutes, mostly state schools with few alternate funding options, according to data compiled by the National Association of Scholars.

The U.S. also ended its Fulbright exchange program last year in China and Hong Kong, leading to a surge of interest in Taiwan's Fulbright program -- along with an increase in U.S. funding.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, visits the Confucius Institute  housed at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago on January 21, 2011.   © Reuters

Up to 60 Taiwanese teaching assistants will teach Chinese at U.S. host universities in the 2021-2022 academic year, up from 39 placements in 2020 and 25 in 2019, according to Lisa Lin, the program's director at Fulbright Taiwan.

In past years, these assistants "have been invited by local professors to talk about Taiwan society, social movements, and the culture difference between Taiwan and China," Lin said, giving them the opportunity to share knowledge about topics ranging from Taiwan's Indigenous groups to the Sunflower Student Movement.

The number of U.S. applicants for all Fulbright Taiwan programs has doubled from 2018 to 2021, said Randall Nadeau, Fulbright Taiwan's executive director.

"We certainly have seen increased interest," Nadeau said, highlighting "a more restrictive atmosphere for scholarly research in China" along with "Taiwan's successful handling of the pandemic and the attention that has received abroad."

Taiwan and the U.S. have partnered in other education initiatives, such as a talent network launched in conjunction with AIT and several Taiwan Studies programs at U.S. universities.

Although Taipei likely lacks the raw financial power to replicate the scope of Beijing's Confucius Institutes, experts believe attempting to do so would be unwise.

James Lin, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's Taiwan Studies Program, said Taiwan would likely follow the models of South Korea and Japan, which established academic presence in the U.S. through unconditional endowments, rather than emulating the heavy-handedness of Confucius Institutes.

The government-supported Japan Foundation has funded language and culture programs at U.S. universities since its establishment in 1972, while the Korea Foundation has done the same since 1991. Taiwan already supports similar programs, like that of the University of Washington, with its own grants.

"If [Taiwan's] Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to replicate the Confucius model, just substituting China for Taiwan, it would encounter the same perceptions about interference into academic freedom" as Confucius Institutes, he said.

"Funding can go a long way," he added. "It needs to be without political strings attached."

Lin said he had not noticed much trepidation among university administrators in the U.S. toward establishing Taiwan-related programs.

Schools in Europe and Australia that held Taiwan-related events have received letters from Chinese embassies threatening retaliation, such as banning international students from attending those universities.

Taiwan's government and private programs to improve its international education presence tend to be "dispersed rather than concentrated," leading to "many short-lived overseas Taiwan Studies programs," said Dafydd Fell, director of the University of London's SOAS Center of Taiwan Studies.

"The international Taiwan Studies is much more diverse and vibrant than in the past, but many of the centers or programs are not very stable," he said.

Regardless, Taiwan's global education presence is "quite healthy" and can benefit as an alternative to the authoritarian political environments of China and Hong Kong, he added.

"Demand for Taiwan Studies, to a certain extent, [depends] on how we frame Taiwan or design Taiwan Studies programs," Fell said. "But it also needs support from Taiwan, and the key is long-term funding and targeted funding support."

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