Taiwan Expands Soft Power through Language Learning Centers, Harvard’s Mandarin Program Decamps to Taipei

Language learning can be a bridge to mutual understanding between nations, but it is not immune from politics. In what the Chinese Foreign Ministry has interpreted as a political move, the Harvard Beijing Academy, a Mandarin summer study-abroad program, announced that it would terminate its partnership with the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) and relocate to Taipei by the summer of 2022. The Taiwanese government has also established a number of new overseas Mandarin language programs that are meant to compete with China’s Confucius Institutes in a bid for soft power

Harvard’s Associate Director for Communications, Harry Pierre, stated that “the planned move of this program from Beijing to Taiwan has been considered for some time and reflects a wide array of operational factors.” Another staff member at the Harvard Center in Shanghai claimed that the move was made purely for logistical reasons amid the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in Harvard’s student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, Io Y. Gilman and Isabel Wu explained how another major factor was the increasingly unfriendly atmosphere in China:

According to Program Director Jennifer L. Liu, the program decided to move to Taipei due to a perceived lack of friendliness from the host institution, Beijing Language and Culture University. In recent years, the program began to have difficulties accessing the classrooms and dorms they needed. For instance, Liu noted that the BLCU did not provide a single dorm for all the students, instead requiring the program split the students into two different dorms of different quality, or to find a hotel that could keep their students together. “Given the condition they provided, we really couldn’t run the program with the quality that we are hoping to deliver to our students,” Liu said.

Liu suspects that the unwelcoming environment may be a product of a subtle shift in the Chinese government’s attitudes towards U.S. institutions, one precipitated by Xi Jinping’s rise to power. In past years, the program would typically host a small party to celebrate the Fourth of July, during which students and faculty would eat pizza and sing the national anthem.

However, in 2019, BLCU notified the program that it could no longer hold this holiday party. “We were told that our students we’re not allowed to sing, to celebrate,” Liu said. [Source]

Amy Qin at the New York Times described the evolution of the Harvard language program

The Harvard program started in 2005 and initially cost $4,500. By 2015, more than 1,000 students had participated, according to the Beijing Language and Culture University’s website. The program was canceled in 2020 and this year because of the pandemic. It is now scheduled to begin next summer under the name Harvard Taipei Academy at National Taiwan University in Taipei. The new host institution said that in addition to offering language courses over eight weeks, the program would give its 60 or so students the opportunity to visit attractions around Taiwan and participate in cultural activities like Chinese calligraphy and paper-cutting workshops. [Source]

Person-to-person exchanges between the U.S. and China have been a casualty of rising geopolitical tensions between the two nations. In January 2020, the Trump administration axed the Peace Corps program in China, and in July, it terminated the Fulbright program in mainland China and Hong Kong. In May of the same year, the administration implemented a policy—currently maintained by the Biden administration—denying visas to Chinese graduate students with connections to the Chinese military. The acrimony was reciprocated across the Pacific, as the Chinese government, citing coronavirus concerns, closed its borders to all foreign students except those from South Korea. The closed-border policy remains in effect.

The Taiwanese government, in contrast, has made a major investment in wooing foreign students eager for cross-cultural education. In September 2021, it launched a network of government-funded language schools in a program called Taiwan Center for Mandarin Learning (TCML). Focus Taiwan, the English-language version of the country’s national new agency, described the scope and nature of the new language program:

The OCAC [Overseas Community Affairs Council] has approved the sponsorship of the establishment of 18 branches of the Taiwan Center for Mandarin Learning in the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, with 15 of them to be set up at Chinese language schools in the U.S. operated by overseas Taiwanese communities, according to the council.

The funding was established in accordance with the U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative, a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. in 2020.

The OCAC will finance the operation of the institutes, textbooks and equipment, as well as other language-related events, the council says on its website. [Source]

Phelim Kine at Politico described how the Taiwanese government has invested significant resources into the program:

The initiative marks a dramatic expansion of informal assistance that Taiwan’s government has provided for decades to Chinese language “heritage schools” operated by Chinese American communities in the U.S. The self-governing island is now targeting 429 existing independent K-12 Chinese language schools in North America and Europe as hosts for TCMLs for adult Mandarin learners. The first 15 TCMLs in the U.S. launched last month at K-12 Chinese-language schools in California, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. Taiwan aims to raise that number to 100 TCMLs over the next three to five years, the principal at one of those schools told China Watcher.

Taiwan is using cash to back its aspirations of eclipsing China’s Confucius Institutes. Host schools for TCMLs can apply for Taiwan government funding of up to $38,000 per year to cover items, including operating expenses and “performance subsidies” to meet teaching quality metrics. Taiwan’s government will also underwrite travel and accommodation costs for U.S.-based TCML teachers to receive training in Taiwan and subsidize instructors’ wages by $50 per hour. The role of TCMLs as a durable bridge between the U.S. and Taiwan is written into the contract: They are expected to create “online alumni associations” and scholarships for U.S. citizens to study in Taiwan. The sole restriction: TCML teachers “must not hold passports from Mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau.” [Source]

The TCML program stands in sharp contrast to China’s overseas Confucius Institutes. Taiwan’s Minister for OCAC Tung Chen-yuan boasted, during his three week-long tour to inaugurate the new learning centers, that the program provides an environment that values “freedom and democracy while respecting cultural diversity,” and added, “This is something that Confucius Institutes can simply not compete with.” Earlier this year at a Chinese language symposium in Taipei, American Institute in Taiwan Director Brent Christensen stated that Taiwan’s Mandarin teaching programs should share “a different version of history” than that told at Confucius Institutes, and “fully tell Taiwan’s story to their American students.” Jordyn Haime at SupChina explained how harsh criticism of Confucius Institutes in the U.S. has pressured many of the institutes to close:

According to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative group that has advocated for the closure of CIs, only around 30 will remain in the United States by the end of 2021, down from 110 in 44 states in 2017. This year’s closures come as national opinion of China has reached an all time low — 67 percent of Americans have “cold feelings” toward China — and as reports of anti-Asian violence have skyrocketed across the U.S.

[…] Confucius Institutes have been controversial for years, with concerns repeatedly raised that institutes funded by a foreign power pose a threat to security and academic integrity while serving as a CCP propaganda arm. Critics say CIs censor sensitive topics like Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and Xinjiang, and has discriminated against teachers with a history of involvement in the Falun Gong. Despite fears that CIs serve as outposts to recruit spies and facilitate espionage, numerous investigations have been unable to find any evidence to support these claims.

In response to criticisms, CIs rebranded in 2020, renaming its parent organization from Hanban to the Ministry of Education Center for Language Education and Cooperation in order to highlight the “language exchange” component of the initiative. But that hasn’t done much to dispel the perception, among many Americans, that CIs transmit Chinese propaganda. During the Trump administration, the speed of CI closures escalated under mounting pressure from the federal government: provisions in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) forced schools to choose between their CI and foreign language program funding from the defense department. Last summer, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS) would be designated as an official Chinese government entity. A recent bill that would add further limitations and oversight requirements to CIs passed the Senate this spring. [Source]

Despite Taiwan’s apparent soft-power win in the language learning sphere, it is unclear to what extent these developments will allow Taiwan to pull foreign students away from mainland China’s cultural and political orbit:

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