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US urges Taiwan to fill gap as China’s Confucius Institutes wane

Taiwan well-positioned to promote Mandarin learning, democratic narratives in US: AIT director

Confucius snack noodles (Tainan City Government photo)

Confucius snack noodles (Tainan City Government photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The top American representative to Taiwan is urging the country to fill the gap left by the exodus of China's Confucius Institutes in the U.S., following accusations that they advance the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political agenda.

Brent Christensen, director at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), told Nikkei Asia that Taiwan can play a significant role in promoting Mandarin education in the U.S. Lambasting the Confucius Institute's curriculum as biased, he said that "Taiwan shares the U.S. commitment to intellectual and academic freedom."

In a speech last month, the diplomat advocated a bigger role for Taiwanese Mandarin instructors as part of the U.S. Taiwan Education Initiative. The island country can seize the opportunity to show Americans how it has achieved “a thriving democracy, a robust economy, and perhaps the most effective response to COVID-19 in the world,” he said, adding that it can present a different version of history than that being taught at Confucius Institutes.

According to Christensen, around 60 Taiwanese will travel to the U.S. to teach Chinese in the 2021-2022 academic year under the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program.

Confucius Institutes are being shuttered in the U.S. and around the world due to concerns of espionage and the CCP’s “malign influence” on academic freedom. The U.S. State Department designated the centers as foreign missions last August, despite Beijing’s insistence that they are apolitical and intended to foster cultural exchanges.

As of January of this year, there were 63 Confucius Institutes in the U.S., including 55 at universities and colleges, according to the conservative nonprofit National Association of Scholars. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had expressed his wish to see all remaining institutes close by the end of 2020.

Citing James Lin, assistant professor at the University of Washington's Taiwan Studies program, Nikkei wrote that Taiwan can learn from Japan and South Korea, which have built academic presences in the U.S. through unconditional endowments, providing grants to educational institutions for language and culture programs.

Replicating the Confucius model would risk sparking controversy similar to that facing Beijing-led institutes, Lin said, adding that the approach “needs to be without political strings attached.”