New institute comes with questions of Chinese influence

by Mary Ellen Mcintire

The University will launch a Chinese language and culture institute tied to the country’s government next fall, strengthening ties with the global power, but possibly jeopardizing academic freedom in the process.

The Confucius Institute, run by about 360 universities worldwide to teach non-credit Chinese courses, inked an agreement last month with the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences after Dean Peg Barratt met with officials in China.

“We’ve been working on that [agreement] for almost two years. It’s designed around cultural exchange, language and scholarship in the study of China,” Barratt, in her last year as dean, said. “What we’ve got now is the money to get it started.”

She declined to say how much the University or the Confucius Institute’s overhead organization “Hanban” is investing in the institute. Universities like Texas A&M and the University of Utah each received $100,000 in startup funds from the Chinese government, according to contracts obtained by Bloomberg News.

Barratt said that she expects the institute to have “dozens” of students by the end of its first year. She will direct the institute temporarily, and the University will recruit professionals from around D.C. to take the non-credit classes in Chinese culture, language, ethics and philosophy.

The institute will use mostly GW professors, and may add a co-director from China next fall. It will be housed in the renovated 2147 F St.

China has spent about $500 million propping up these institutes around the world since 2004. The strategy was described by former Chinese President Hu Jintao in a 2007 speech as a way to “enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country.”

That influence, which has spread to Columbia and Stanford universities, has caught some Americans off-guard. Controversy has surrounded the Confucius Institute since its arrival in the U.S., with critics taking aim at it as a tool for Chinese propaganda.

June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor and China expert at University Miami, said there are drawbacks that come with the funds.

“The problem is that there’s no free lunch: Accepting a [Confucius Institute] means not inviting the Dalai Lama and various other restrictions. This impinges on academic freedom,” she said.

Barratt said she was unfazed by critics of the institute, comparing the program to GW’s partnership with the British Council, a similar cultural institution run by England’s government.

She also said there is safety in numbers.

“I think we saw other top universities taking on Confucius Institutes, and that increased our comfort level,” she said, pointing to the University of Chicago as an example.

The institute will be the first in D.C., although the University of Maryland and George Mason University both house the program.

Rebecca McGinnis, coordinator of the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, the first in the U.S., said people who take the ambitious step to learn Chinese see great networking and job-boosting benefits.

The college deals with challenges like granting visas for teachers to come from China, working with Chinese universities and maintaining funding, she said. But it is also looking to expand, spending $1 million in the institute last year, matching an investment from the Chinese government.

“Right now we’re waiting for certain funds to mature, and hoping to eventually establish perhaps some endowed chairs in certain departments and have funds to support various lecture series,” she said.

The Confucius Institute agreement will also link GW up with Nanjing University in eastern China, adding another tie for the University in the country. It teamed up with Renmin University to use its facilities and some of its faculty to host a master’s of finance degree.

The added partnerships could also help Columbian College as it plans an ambitious undergraduate degree program that will take economics and political science majors to three countries – the U.S., France and China – in four years. The program will start in the fall 2014, with a pilot class of about 30 to 50 students. GW will begin marketing the program this spring, seeking out American and Chinese teenagers, as well as students at international high schools.

“I have talked to young people and I’ve talked to their parents,” Barratt, who traveled to China twice last semester, said. “I think people are intrigued with this. Families want their children ready for the global world, so I think they will be just as intrigued as students.”

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