I wrote here about the Confucius Institutes, a mechanism through which the Chinese government fights its ideological battle on American campuses. The Institutes offer Chinese language and culture courses at more than 100 American colleges and universities, while avoiding mention of human rights abuses, portraying Taiwan and Tibet as undisputed territories of China, and doing their best to make sure American students know nothing more of China than the regime’s official history.
Dr. Todd Flanders, headmaster of the Providence Academy in Minnesota, informs me that the Confucius Institutes also operate at the high schools level. He writes:
I appreciated your piece on Confucius Institutes and American universities. The Confucius Institute has also for years operated a joint program with the College Board* for U.S. high schools called “Chinese Bridge.” The program, paid for by the Chinese government, brings U.S. school teachers and administrators to China to promote the hiring of Chinese teachers of Chinese language and culture in U.S. schools. I went in 2009 as a member of one such “Chinese Bridge Delegation.” Let me share with you a few experiences.
We were hosted lavishly, which all of us appreciated. In eight tightly packed days, I had opportunities to be impressed and moved by one of the great world’s greatest cultures with an immeasurably deep and rich history.
Yet to this Westerner, the whole thing had the feel of a Potemkin-village tour. Every aspect of the visit was managed to leave positive impressions about contemporary China. Assuming that this would be the case, I brought along an e-book version of Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow as an antidote. Pan, former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, had to leave his China assignment permanently to be able to write truthfully about the lies, corruption, deep human rights violations, and government-private collusion in contemporary China. A sobering account.
Our delegation was fêted at the Great Hall of the People. While “the People” were nowhere to be seen, there were dignitaries aplenty. Flanking the dining space were exhibitions of Chinese arts, crafts and culture, including available DVD’s and brochures about the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and other associations approved of by the Party. Entertainment included a crack Chinese high school orchestra led by a European conductor, and a top-notch Chinese high school choir performing both English and Chinese songs.
One English-language song particularly caught my attention. I was surprised when we began to hear “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” because I wondered how this choir was going to sing the line, “With God as our Father, brothers all are we.” I mentioned this to those around me. So we were all attentive when the choir sang, “With Mao as our father….”
Touring Tiananmen Square the next day, our assigned local guide “Kevin” (they all used Anglo names) recounted the historical significance of the location. A teacher in our group interrupted: “Where was that famous picture?” Kevin pointed to the large picture of Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City. The teacher said, “no, I mean the famous picture of the man and the tank in 1989.” Kevin, looking very uncomfortable, said that he couldn’t understand the question, and changed the subject.
I reflected on this encounter with a professor of history from Villanova who was with our delegation. I said how striking it was to encounter the whitewashing of such a significant event, and wondered whether Kevin was ignorant of the event or merely instructed to avoid it. The professor expressed concern about the culturally insensitive judgmentalism implicit in my raising the question. “After all,” he said, “our own recent history includes similar events.” “Like what, exactly? I asked.” “Like Kent State.” (Really??)
In Hangzhou, we visited a high school. The principal showed us a video students had made for our visit. Images of lockstep marching on the quad and paeans to the Motherland gave the brief film a Leni Riefenstahl touch. Later, we spoke to some high school seniors. One boy, soon to be off to Michigan State, asked us what we were doing in China. We told him we were thinking of introducing Chinese language programs in our schools. “Why would you do that?” he asked; “Two-hundred-fifty million of us are learning your language, which is so much easier and more practical to learn than ours is.” An interesting point, which set a few of us to thinking twice.
I thank Dr. Flanders for letting me know that the reach of the Confucius Institutes goes deeper than I knew. I should add that, in our follow-up correspondence, Dr. Flanders said he remains grateful to Hanban and the College Board for the remarkable opportunity they provided.
UPDATE: Rachelle Peterson of the National Association of Scholars tells me that in addition to the Chinese Bridge program, there are “Confucius Classrooms” at about 500 K-12 schools in the U.S.