Mandarin Without Mao

Ian Oxnevad

CounterCurrent: Week of 9/4/2023

CounterCurrent: China Edition is a monthly newsletter of the National Association of Scholars uncovering and highlighting the effects of the Chinese Communist Party's influence on American education.

China’s Communist Party Enrolls in American Primary Schools

Beneath the battles over school choice and standoffs between teachers’ unions and parents, China is quietly gaining influence in American K-12 education. In the past few months, evidence has emerged of the alarming breadth of the Chinese government’s foothold in U.S. schools through programs such as Confucius Classrooms (CCs) and outright purchasing of private schools. Notably, private organizations rather than U.S. policymakers have raised the alarm over this trend. Too often, federal and state governments have been silent.

Since 2017, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has documented the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to influence American education. The NAS spearheaded an investigation into China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs), or what the CCP’s then-head of propaganda called “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set up.” We documented the CCP’s use of CIs to deploy soft power, shape perceptions, monitor dissidents, and stifle academic freedom. Initially run by the Chinese propaganda agency, the Hanban, CIs are now officially under the purview of the Ministry of Education Center for Language Exchange and Cooperation and the Chinese International Educational Foundation. These “language programs” are a tool of China’s geopolitical influence.

NAS’s alarm drew some early attention from government officials and the public, resulting in the forced closure and reorganization of many CIs. Most recently, New York’s Alfred University shuttered its CI after it was discovered to be receiving taxpayer funds for defense research while still maintaining ties to Beijing through its CI.

But despite measured success at curtailing the CCP in universities, the influence of the CCP is growing in the K-12 system.

This year witnessed heightened anxiety over China’s ambitions amid a spy balloon discovered floating over military sites across the U.S. heartland, China’s intrusions into Taiwanese airspace, and the purchase of American farmland by Chinese conglomerates. In U.S. schools, the grassroots group Parents Defending Education (PDE) published a report documenting over $17 million in Chinese spending between 2009 and 2023 to fund Mandarin language training in primary and secondary classrooms across the U.S.

PDE found that the CCP’s Confucius Classrooms (CCs), the younger sibling of its now-discredited CIs, stretch across 34 states, operate in school districts around 20 U.S. military bases, and connect to three of the country’s top three high schools with programs for science and technology. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the Chinese government donated over $1 million through various middleman organizations. Little is known about how many CCs are operational or have closed. PDE found 143 schools altogether, many of which operate under the auspices of a now-discontinued agreement between Beijing and the US.. nonprofit, the Asia Society.

In seeking access to American technology and seeking to shape U.S. perceptions of China, the targeting of high-end schools like Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology makes sense. PDE uncovered partnerships between Thomas Jefferson High and China’s Tsinghua University High School. A thread that quickly leads to China’s People’s Liberation Army.

When not busy forming sister partnerships between U.S. schools and its military, the CCP is buying American schools outright. In March of this year, the Locke Society documented the CCP’s purchase of private educational institutions across the country. In the last few years, Chinese companies have bought schools including the New York Military AcademyFlorida’s Preparatory Academy, and California’s Stratford Academy. Beijing’s purchase of programs that groom future American warfighters is guided by a geopolitical investment strategy as well as a financial one. The Locke Society made the excellent point that school choice may mean little if it offers parents the option between failing public schools and private ones owned by the CCP.

China’s Classroom Influence in Geopolitical Context

Among America’s peer geopolitical competitors in the past, no equivalent exists for Beijing’s interest in U.S. education. Neither Imperial Japan, nor Nazi Germany operated language programs in U.S. universities, nor were they allowed to buy American schools. Cut off due to a bifurcated world, the Soviet Union could have only dreamed of China’s ability to influence U.S. education. Yet, similarities between how the Soviet Union viewed education and how the CCP uses it for political purposes offer a striking parallel.

Research by France’s Institute of Strategic Research in 2021 documents China’s strategy to influence the civil society of other nations for its geopolitical purposes. The French researchers noted that Chinese influence in education is designed to use “levers” of coercion such as “financial dependence” in educational institutions to cultivate “self-censorship” and “surveillance.” The French report highlights how influence fits into the CCP’s strategic outlook, explaining that the “cognitive domain” is an effective area of operation just as sea, air, or cyberspace is in conventional military action. In this light, owning the schools that produce America’s future military leaders, and monopolizing access to Mandarin in the U.S. education system give Beijing control over views of those most likely to be in positions of power relevant to it.

China’s overseas education efforts are not isolated to the U.S.—they operate worldwide. As Beijing expands its reach using economics and infrastructure projects within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its educational parallel has continued apace in many countries. India, China’s largest competitor in Asia, is examining CCs and CIs as potential models for its own Indian Council of Cultural Relations to improve India’s ability to project soft power. India’s concerns over CCs and CIs are similar to those found in the U.S., and the Hanban’s brand has suffered accordingly. Ideas in the classroom typically escape into the real world. Since 2020, India has been engaged in a standoff with China over Himalayan border regions. Concurrent with China’s incursions into Taiwanese airspace and the closure of many CCs in the U.S., New Delhi tightened restrictions on organizations tied to China’s United Front Works Department (UFWD).

How to Win the War for Mandarin

American classrooms need Mandarin language courses without the CCP. When pushed to close Beijing-backed language programs, supporters often cite the dire need for Mandarin-language instruction in American schools—a need that only the CCP, through its benign influence, can provide. Beijing’s defenders follow the assumption that the CCP has a monopoly on both Chinese identity and Mandarin. That fallacious assumption simply isn’t true. The U.S. has a population of Mandarin speakers, loyal citizens of Chinese descent, and allies. America should use this natural advantage to provide foreign language courses free of CCP influence.

Thankfully, recent developments signal the future availability of Mandarin without Mao. The U.S. nonprofit American Councils for International Education offers intensive Mandarin language programs in Taiwan. In October 2021, Harvard University moved its own Mandarin summer program from Beijing to Taipei due to a “perceived lack of friendliness” from hosts in communist China. In 2020, the U.S. Taiwan Education Initiative was formed explicitly to offer an alternative to Beijing.

For K-12 reformers looking to move away from the CCP, Taiwan and Singapore both offer sources of classroom curricula for Mandarin, as well as potential institutional partners. Policymakers at the federal, state, and local school board levels should seek these alternatives to prepare for the 21st century with China, but without the CCP.

The lure of Confucius Classrooms and Institutes is the promise of low-cost programs and international prestige. International prestige is available elsewhere and can be found without opening the door to influence operations and dependence that Beijing offers. For U.S. education to remove the threat posed by the CCP in American schools, breaking the illusion of Beijing’s monopoly on Mandarin is the first necessary step.

Until next time.

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

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