The Language of Diplomacy

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Have we begun outsourcing our education system to the same country to which we’ve surrendered our manufacturing sector and entrusted our national debt?

That’s probably too dire, at least for now, but the Chinese education ministry has been extending its reach worldwide. Five hundred and fifty higher-education programs (“Confucius Institutes”) already operate in ninety countries (including almost seventy institutes on American shores), in addition to the newer but no less worrisome K–12 language programs taking the United States by storm. One of Beijing’s chief U.S. partners in this venture, the Asia Society, has opened twenty pilot sites in American public schools and seeks to launch eighty more by fall 2011. Some districts and states—notably North Carolina—are working directly with the Chinese government, while still more districts are turning to the Confucius Institutes based at their local universities to get started.

The basic offer is surely tempting, doubly so in a down economy: at little or no cost to you, the government of China will teach your students about Chinese language and culture. Chinese nationals handle instruction (almost five thousand of them currently roam the globe, secondary and higher education combined); their government subsidizes their salaries and pays their airfare. China provides a free curriculum, textbooks, and materials.

Although a noisy dustup is under way in a middle school near Los Angeles (Hacienda Heights is a 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 from Rutgers to Texas A&M to the University of Alaska. According to recent coverage in the New York Times, three hundred and twenty-five Chinese teachers are now in U.S. classrooms via the College Board’s guest-teacher program and a related initiative for independent schools.

One can, of course, argue that this is a wonderful windfall that will help young Americans engage with what will eventually be the world’s other superpower (assuming, that is, that the United States remains one). But one can also cite 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, England, Portugal, Holland, Italy, Germany, and, of course, Russia. Why shouldn’t China do the same?

China already wields enormous influence over our economy, our foreign policy, and our defense strategy—not to mention the clothes we wear and the toys we buy our kids.

And one can rue the apathy that most young Americans show toward learning other languages, except possibly Spanish. We tend to assume that everyone on the planet is learning English to converse with us. The State Department, the military, and multinational corporations address that blind spot by training their own folks in the languages of the places where they will work. Indeed, State has even helped to pay for some of the Confucius Institutes as part of the post-9/11 push in critically needed languages.

I’m open to the possibility that America’s interests will be advanced if more of today’s children become fluent in Mandarin Chinese. 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. Its behavior at home is well documented: hacking human-rights activists’ computers and e-mails, censoring communications and information whenever and wherever it can, endangering schoolchildren in shoddy buildings. It takes people it doesn’t like and shoots them in the head. It imprisons political dissidents until they grow sick and weak.

The country is no friend to the United States. Rather, it’s our chief competitor, our chief creditor, and our chief rival in much of the globe. It is the nation that poses the greatest and most multifaceted threat to the United States. It already wields enormous influence over our economy, our foreign policy, and our defense strategy—not to mention the clothes we put on our backs and the toys we buy for our kids. It is the main impediment to serious sanctions against Iran. It is a menace to Japan, South Korea, and other countries, many of them U.S. allies.

This could be a wonderful windfall for young Americans. But remember earlier powers that sought to cement their empires and solidify their dominance by getting the locals to learn their languages.

China has its linguistic sights trained on those lands, too. Recently, the New York 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. The Hanban—part of China’s education ministry—is creating a Confucius language and culture program to use elsewhere around the globe. It’s all part of President Hu Jintao’s strategy of projecting soft power.

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