Why Taiwan Should Not Try to Replace Confucius Institutes
by Ross Darrell Feingold
Former Asia Chairman Republicans Abroad
In mid-August the BBC published a long report about Taiwan’s newly opened Mandarin language schools in the United States. The report compared the Taiwan operated schools with the now discredited Confucius Institutes operated by the Chinese government in secondary and tertiary academic institutions worldwide. With the negative attention given to Confucius Institutes over concerns that courses offered in the institutes limit academic freedom by avoiding sensitive topics such as Xinjiang Tibet and Taiwan and that the personnel are employees of the Chinese government and / or work at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese government it is no surprise that the political and in some places legal environments have shifted against schools in the United States hosting a Confucius Institute.
First as a US citizen I prefer Mandarin teaching jobs be given to United States citizens or permanent residents. There are a sufficient number of such persons in the United States who are native Mandarin speakers whether their heritage is in Taiwan China or other locations in the Mandarin speaking world. If schools in the United States in need of Mandarin teachers are concerned that teachers might have an inappropriate relationship to the Chinese government this can be ascertained during the hiring process. It is ironic that the Taiwan government makes it difficult for primary schools and kindergartens to hire foreigners to teach English but wants to export its own citizens to serve as Mandarin teachers overseas.
Second let’s be frank and admit that successive Taiwan governments have never been very good at projecting Taiwan’s soft power. Taiwan’s efforts to promote inbound tourism or export Taiwan’s modern culture are rather pathetic when compared to the successes of other countries in Asia such as Japan South Korea and Thailand. Whether it’s the Ministry of Transportation and Communications Tourism Bureau or the Ministry of Culture (and its predecessor agencies) there are consistent problems with a lack of international understanding bureaucracy and money wasted on projects that generate poor results. Recent gains (pre Covid-19) in inbound tourism arrivals were helped in part by subsidies to attract tourists from certain Southeast Asian countries but these low spending tourists did not make up for the loss of China tourists.
Third as this author has previously publicly commented Taiwan’s central and local government agencies have an odd habit of valuing foreigners who live outside Taiwan and make some gesture to show support for Taiwan (such as recent statements or social media posts by politicians in other countries) over the foreign population resident in Taiwan. As recent events in Afghanistan show the presence of a foreign community is an important concern not only of the host country but also those persons home country governments. Perhaps the Taiwan government should spend more resources on activating the resident foreign community to advocate for Taiwan who by their decision to live in Taiwan have demonstrated their commitment to Taiwan rather than spend resources on Mandarin language students overseas. Similarly there are tens of thousands of alumni of Taiwan’s Mandarin language schools around the world who in the past sixty years studied Mandarin in Taiwan. It is this author’s firm belief that they can also be great advocates for Taiwan but the Taiwan government largely ignores these foreigners. Instead the government is trying to create new friends of Taiwan by teaching Mandarin to foreigners in far away places.
Fourth the name of the language should be carefully considered. Regardless of what the language is called in Mandarin or if in English it is referred to as “Mandarin” there will still be confusion as to whether or not Taiwan is part of China. If Taiwan wants Americans or the rest of the world to view Taiwan as separate from China why would Taiwan fund the teaching of the Chinese language? Perhaps Taiwan should instead fund the teaching overseas of dialects such as Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka which would distinguish Taiwan from China the Chinese government will not compete in this area and it will help learners do business with the worldwide Hokkien and Hakka diaspora.
Which leads to the most important reasons why the concept of Taiwan funding Mandarin language schools worldwide is odd. Generally people study Mandarin because they wish to work in or with China. Regardless of whether the field is business or academics or other China and not Taiwan is the motivating factor for people to learn Mandarin. Although some persons such as myself who studied Mandarin at a young age changed paths and made their life in Taiwan rather than China this is the exception and not the rule why people learn Mandarin. Thus there is a risk that students of Taiwan-funded Mandarin schools eventually go to China to work anyway and have little connection to Taiwan. A similar phenomenon is seen with foreign students who receive scholarships to study in Taiwan whether language or in other fields. One aspect of the New Southbound Policy is to offer scholarships to students from these countries to study in Taiwan’s universities but there is no evidence they return Taiwan’s generosity by doing anything for Taiwan now or in the future and in fact the likelihood is higher that they will do business with China in the future than with Taiwan.
Generally as with any thing that attaches Taiwan to Chinese culture these language schools appear to create a confusing message that “but for” the current political separation of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait Taiwan and China are actually one entity. To further prove that point the Taiwan government even wants to subsidize the teaching of the common language during a period when China’s government has a negative image. If Taiwan’s current government wants to claim an ownership share to aspects of Chinese history (such as the government’s selective participation in events to memorialize events in the Republic of China’s history) Chinese artifacts such as what is held at the National Palace Museum or the Mandarin language it weakens the argument for Taiwan being separate from China.
Taiwan politicians and other stakeholders love to talk about projecting Taiwan’s soft power. But Taiwan’s national security is based on hard power and a sufficient investment people and equipment for Taiwan’s military and other national security agencies. Taiwan funded Mandarin language schools around the world are unlikely to improve Taiwan’s national security will divert the attention of relevant government agencies from other more important domestic matters to please the politicians who think this is a good idea and might ultimately waste Taiwan taxpayer’s money.