Around five years ago, Chinese government influence in American education became a permanent fixture in the news cycle. This was in large part due to the National Association of Scholars’ groundbreaking 2017 report, Outsourced to China, which exposed the deep ties over 100 American colleges and universities maintained with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through their respective Confucius Institutes (CIs).
CIs are ostensibly Chinese language and culture centers, but the NAS’s research revealed that they really function as CCP propaganda nodes. The Party funds CIs, vets their instructors, and determines their curricula, all under the guise of benevolent cultural exchange. But what it has actually done is purchase influence in American higher education, surveilling students, faculty, and staff and teaching historical falsehoods in the process. For example, CIs teach that Taiwan and Tibet are undisputed territories of China and forbid instructors to mention the Tiananmen Square protests.
This influence is not limited to higher education. The CCP also operates Confucius Classrooms, a K-12 equivalent of CIs through which it asserts a similar kind of soft power. Additionally, a 2020 NAS report, Corrupting the College Board, details how the College Board—the company behind the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) exams—worked closely with the CCP to develop the AP Chinese Language and Culture course and exam. The Party also holds the National Chinese Language Conference, through which it shows American teachers how to teach Mandarin the CCP way.
Despite these setbacks, the NAS’s research and advocacy has been quite fruitful. Countless American citizens, including many federal and state legislators, have set their sights on Chinese influence in American education. In the years since we published Outsourced to China, 108 of the 114 existing American CIs have closed. That is certainly worth celebrating, but as our recent follow-up report, After Confucius Institutes, has revealed, the work is far from over. Many one-time CIs have resumed operations under a different name, while their ties to the CCP remain essentially unchanged.
Given the demise of Confucius Institutes and the rising public scrutiny of their replacements, many have asked: How should we teach Chinese language and culture to American college students? One popular answer comes in the form of another foreign government, namely that of Taiwan.
Last month, The Epoch Times reported on Taiwan’s plans to provide an alternative to Confucius Institutes—Taiwan Centers for Mandarin Learning (I’ll abbreviate these as TCs). Taiwan has already established 45 TCs globally, including 35 in the United States, since launching the program in 2021. It touts a “Five-Year Plan to Add 100 Chinese Language Centers,” which will surely include many more American TCs. While the idea is intriguing, I think it’s ultimately a mistake for American higher education.
Before offering my critique of the initiative, I hasten to note that TCs are far, far better than CIs in every way. Tung Chen-yuan, chairman of Taiwan’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Council, explains that unlike CIs, TCs do not teach communism or a whitewashed version of Chinese history. This is to be expected, of course, given that Taiwan is a democracy, and it makes TCs far superior to CIs from the outset. Taiwan also offers a supposedly no-strings-attached approach: American colleges and universities are free to choose the instructors and curricula for TCs, which they could not do for CIs. Taiwan’s only stated requirement to maintain funding is that TCs teach traditional Mandarin script rather than the simplified script that Communist China prefers in order to dissuade its citizens from reading pre-CCP literature. All of this makes for a marked improvement over CIs.
I don’t expect it took much convincing to found these centers on American campuses—after all, CIs have come under intense scrutiny in recent years, which makes them a public relations scandal waiting to happen for any remaining host schools. And what college president doesn’t love a blank check? All of this said, I don’t believe TCs are the answer for Mandarin education in America.
First and foremost, there is simply no such thing as no-strings-attached money, except maybe for the Benjamin grandma slips into your birthday card—certainly not money from any government. We must be wary of any foreign funding we receive, even from our allies. Taiwan’s traditional-script requirement is benign and certainly makes for a better Mandarin education. But how do we know more onerous requirements aren’t coming in the future?
Government funding is like a fishhook. The treat at the end looks scrumptious, but once the hook is in, it’s incredibly hard to get out. Colleges which don’t accept U.S. federal money—such as Hillsdale, New Saint Andrews, and Grove City—understand this all too well. The government money may have been okay 50 years ago, but what about now? The Hillsdales of the world are exempt, for example, from maintaining a mandatory kangaroo court—erm, I mean a Title IX office. The hard part is to remain afloat without Uncle Sam, but the institutions which have accomplished that enjoy an amazing degree of freedom. The other 99% which take the bait have hooks in their mouths in perpetuity. Look where it’s brought them.
To be clear, I am not accusing Taiwan of malfeasance. I’m merely pointing out the obvious: even the best governments face a strong temptation to accrue power, and one way they do this is to offer “free” money. TCs may offer a stellar Mandarin education now, but there’s no telling what the Taiwanese government will require of American colleges and universities down the line. Think back to the book of Exodus. Egypt’s Pharaoh during the time of Joseph treated the Hebrews well, but his successor oppressed Moses’s brethren. I’m not predicting such a shift will happen within Taiwan’s government, but it’s certainly possible. The point is that we don’t know.
Second and related, Taiwan is not exactly in the most stable geopolitical position. The People’s Republic encroaches upon the Republic more and more each day, and against that threat we ought to stand with Taiwan. The CCP’s actions against Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and other regions are plainly despicable, not to mention the atrocities it commits against its own people. But standing with Taiwan militarily does not mean we ought to partner with it educationally. Doing so could be dangerous for American higher education—and for the American people as a whole.
Take the following hypothetical scenario: the CCP escalates action against Taiwan, and for whatever reason, it behooves America tactically to remain silent for a time. But the Taiwanese government wants support, so it mandates that all American TCs issue a statement condemning China’s behavior at the risk of losing their funding. I’m no geopolitical expert, but this doesn’t seem all that far-fetched—it could easily put American colleges and universities in a tough spot. There are many more plausible scenarios that would achieve a similar effect.
Third, America does not need TCs to teach Mandarin. I grant that, given the meteoric rise of China and the over one billion people who speak Mandarin globally, it’s crucial for Americans in certain industries to learn the language. But must we accept Taiwanese funding to do so? Certainly not. Take a sliver of the tens of billions we have sent to Ukraine, for example, and you have more than enough to get started. A 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report showed that nearly three million American residents speak Mandarin—and that number is certainly far higher now than it was almost ten years ago. Even if only a fraction of those Mandarin speakers were interested in teaching the language and training others to do so, we’d have enough instructors for the colleges and universities interested in offering such programs. In short, American higher education should be funded by Americans, no matter how few strings a foreign government claims are attached to its money.
The United States government poses enough challenges to higher education. Forming ties to foreign governments, even those of our allies, will only further complicate matters. In fact, it will likely make matters worse, given that American authorities are utterly unwilling to enforce existing foreign gift disclosure regulations. Streams of dark money, not only from China, have already flowed into American institutions unchecked, the effects of which are largely unknown.
I certainly hope that, as long as they exist, TCs are a resounding success and provide a far superior Mandarin education than CIs ever did. But I’m wary of the potential consequences that arise from accepting blank checks from a foreign government, no matter how friendly. TCs very well may come back to bite us down the line.