Confucius Institute US Center executive director Gao Qing has been on the front lines as scrutiny of Confucius Institutes and their aims intensifies, particularly in the US. The PIE spoke to him to get his take on the purpose of Confucius Institutes, his response to criticisms of CIs and what the future may look like for operations in the US.
The PIE: How did you first get involved in working at Confucius Institutes?
Gao Qing: I came to the United States as an international student in 2005 at George Mason University. I graduated and later went back to George Mason as a faculty member. They also hosted a Confucius and I was made its American director in 2010. In 2017, I came to the Confucius Institute US Center as executive director.
“CI is mischaracterised as a China study program. It’s a language program”
The PIE: Confucius Institutes have been in the news a lot lately. Can you give us a brief overview of what CIs are?
GQ: Confucius Institute programs provide Chinese language instruction and some cultural programs. They are set up as a partnership between a Chinese school and a foreign school, and the program itself is located on the foreign school’s campus.
The foreign school handles the programming, hiring and employment of teachers, and decides the curriculum. The partner school in China provides some resources on request. The host and the Chinese partner school structure funding proposals to apply for funds from the CI headquarters in Beijing. The host school also matches that funding.
Programs at different campuses don’t do the same thing. For example, we have a program focusing on Peking Opera. But they all teach Chinese language.
The PIE: Who runs Confucius Institutes?
GQ: Each CI in the US has a Chinese director and an American director. The American director is responsible for management and operations. The Chinese director is essentially a visiting scholar from the Chinese partner school, serving as a liaison and providing cultural insights for management.
The PIE: Are all CI teachers from China?
GQ: Each program has a different operational model in terms of teachers. The program at George Mason University, which is located in the DC metropolitan area, doesn’t need teachers from China for local K-12 schools. We have very good teachers in the neighbourhood.
But in other places, particularly in the Midwest or rural areas, CIs bring teachers from China. Some are volunteers who are graduates learning to teach Chinese, and others are local teachers.
The PIE: A lot of attention in the US on CIs is negative. Critics say CIs censor topics China considers sensitive such as issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
GQ: They mischaracterise Confucius Institutes as a China study program. It’s a language program. If people understand that then a lot of the academic freedom issues are not going to be there.
“You don’t ask an English language teacher to teach about American slavery, so why ask a Chinese language teacher to teach Chinese history or politics?”
You don’t ask an English language teacher to teach about American slavery, so why ask a Chinese language teacher to teach Chinese history or politics? The teachers were trained as language teachers.
Political issues or China studies are not in their credentials and it would be very unfair to ask them to talk about that, though we do not forbid them from talking about those issues.
Critics say there is an academic freedom issue if you don’t teach certain subjects. But that’s not what the program was set up for. In the name of academic freedom, language and culture-based exchange programs are being flagged as inappropriately political.
The PIE: A report in 2017 by the National Association of Scholars said CIs were interfering in academic freedom, for example, they said one CI blocked a visit by the Dalai Lama to a campus.
GQ: I don’t give much credit to that report. The NAS is a conservative social activism organisation, not an academic one.
They did do a number of interviews, but there was a strong agenda and they basically selected the parts that they want to have. I was interviewed. I was very open and invited them to come to my office and attend our events. But there was no mention about that.
A number of the issues quoted in the report were not in the US. For the very few cases in the US, it’s hard to tell whether those incidents are because there is a CI.
The PIE: The report mentions the Dalai Lama’s visit to North Carolina State University…
GQ: Yes, there was a Confucius Institute at the university and the Dalai Lama’s visit was cancelled. But were these two related to each other? There are at least two other universities which had Confucius Institutes and invited and hosted the Dalai Lama.
If this were truly the Chinese government’s arm on campus, I would expect them to withdraw the program in protest. But the two programs are still there. At the University of Maryland, some of the teachers and CI students even attended the talks because they may never have the experience of seeing him back in China. Nobody said you can or cannot do that.
I recommend another report by the US’s government Accountability Office. That is much more comprehensive, researching 90 Confucius Institute programs and visiting 10 campuses.
The PIE: Do CI students tend to have a more positive view of China?
GQ: The majority of CI students are not college students but community members. But even for those young students, there was a recent article published in the Washington Post by a PhD candidate at Harvard University researching Confucius language classes and students’ opinions about China.
She asked over 2,000 students and found out some of those coming to Confucius Institutes actually have a worse opinion about China.
“Some of those coming to Confucius Institutes actually have a worse opinion about China”
The PIE: This year your centre was designated a foreign mission by the US government. What does this mean?
GQ: First of all, they keep saying that CIUS is the headquarters for American CIs. They said it in their press release and they said it in one of the briefings. That is wrong. We have no working relationship with other CIs.
So the assumption that they are pressing CIUS to bring pressure to Confucius Institutes programs on campus was completely illogical.
After the designation was made, we had several meetings to understand exactly what that means. It basically gives the Department of State the authority to collect information about two things: who is employed here and what kind of property interests this office has in the United States. But that is already public information.
We have been communicating with the Department of State to provide information so that they may reconsider their decision.
The PIE: Do you think CIs could be shut down completely? And how will this affect Chinese language education in the US?
GQ: The biggest damage in removing CIs isn’t to the Chinese government. The biggest damage is to American students who have benefited from the CI programs, and many of them are in rural areas and underrepresented communities. For example, we have Confucius Institute programs hosted by HBCUs.
“The biggest damage in removing CIs isn’t to the Chinese government. The biggest damage is to American students who have benefited from the CI programs”
Critics have completely misunderstood what CIs are doing. Maybe they think China or the Chinese government is bad, but that doesn’t means studying Chinese language is bad.
We should not only listen to teachers, faculty and university administrators, but also community members and students who participate in Confucius Institute program and hear their experiences.
We need a better analysis of what the Confucius Institutes are doing. Because of the diverse operations across the country and across the world it will be a challenge, but we do need that so that we can better understand what exactly is going on.