Misperception, the real enemy, wins as saber-rattling over China drowns out people-to-people exchanges

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Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part exchange on U.S.-China relations. Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, pursue cross-cultural understanding through news events — this time the demise of Confucius Institutes and Fulbright and Peace Corps programs to China.

BUCK: Lei, help me please. I’m feeling chilled.

LEI: Put on a sweater, Buck, or maybe grab a throw blanket. You’ll feel warmer soon.

BUCK: No, I don’t think so. I’m feeling the chill of a Mao memory during the Cold War.

LEI: What?

BUCK: I hear China’s leader egged on the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to start an East-West nuclear war.

LEI: What?!

BUCK: Yes, Mao Zedong traveled to Moscow a couple of times and urged the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and his henchmen to push the red button. Mao estimated that 300 million Chinese could survive a nuclear war.

LEI: Survive! How many Chinese would die?

BUCK: About 300 million. No problem.

LEI: OMG, where did you hear that?

BUCK: In a lecture by a Chinese professor, Yawei Liu, titled “From Nixon to Biden: What Has Gone Wrong with the Sino-American Relationship?” That Mao story has me completely weirded out.

LEI: Buck, isn’t that what Trump said about the scandals of a certain young North Carolina congressman who lost his primary election despite his endorsement?

BUCK: Oh, Lei, you’re good.

LEI: I think that story is as reliable as a good Trump tweet.

BUCK: Say what?

LEI: Don’t you remember what Trump revealed to his attorney general, Bill Barr, about his secret to a good tweet?

BUCK: No, what?

LEI: Just the right amount of crazy.

BUCK: LOL. But you reminded me of Professor Liu’s key lecture point.

LEI: What’s that?

BUCK: Misperception can lead to miscalculation, and miscalculation will inevitably lead to conflict.

LEI: Bingo, Buck! And do you know the best antidote to misperception and miscalculation?

BUCK: No.

LEI: People-to-people exchanges. Those experiences can clear people’s heads and warm their hearts. It’s called soft power. Americans used it in China for generations.

BUCK: Oh?

LEI: The YMCA movement was active in China as early as the 1870s, Rotary International opened a Shanghai club in 1919, then, of course, you remember when the American Ping-Pong team was invited to China in 1971.

BUCK: Ah, yes, the days of ping pong diplomacy.

LEI: And don’t forget the government-funded efforts. Ever hear of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs?

BUCK: Tell me more.

LEI: Well, I counted 40 programs on its website for U.S. citizens wishing to study abroad for cultural, educational or professional exchange.

BUCK: Did that list include the Fulbright program?

LEI: Yes, Chinese and American Fulbright scholars were working in China under the Nationalist government before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. And don’t forget, the Peace Corps came to China in 1993.

BUCK: Sad to say, Lei, but the Fulbright programs and the Peace Corps hit the skids.

LEI: Yes, President Trump’s executive orders in 2020 terminated the Fulbright exchange program in China and Hong Kong and axed the Peace Corps program in China, too.

BUCK: Oh gee.

LEI: So who sponsored Professor Liu’s lecture?

BUCK: The University of Minnesota’s China Center.

LEI: Wait, Buck, I know that place.

BUCK: Really?

LEI: Yes, I spent a year in a people-to-people program sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Confucius Institute.

BUCK: What did you do?

LEI: I taught Mandarin to elementary school students at a Chinese immersion school outside Minneapolis. I brought along my daughter, Ruby, who was in the 2nd grade.

BUCK: What year was that?

LEI: 2014. That was a wonderful time for Ruby and me. The schoolchildren and their American teachers loved the experience. We learned a lot from each other.

BUCK: You know, that Confucius Institute closed in 2019.

LEI: It’s not alone.

BUCK: Yes, in North Carolina, the Confucius Institutes at Pfeiffer University, N.C. State University and UNC Charlotte were all gone by 2020. Our Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky was shut down abruptly one day in 2021.

LEI: China’s Confucius Institute program started in 1994. It was our attempt at using soft power through teaching Mandarin and Chinese art and culture in school classrooms.

BUCK: How far did it go?

LEI: Honestly, the stats are a moving target. Let’s say for the peak there were 550 institutes in 162 countries and regions with 1,172 classrooms in primary and secondary schools, as of December 2019. Official estimates of students trained: more than 13 million, as of October 2021.

BUCK: No happy ending, though.

LEI: Right. Confucius Institutes started to fade, just like Mike Campbell went bankrupt in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (1926).

BUCK: How did that happen?

LEI: Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.

BUCK: Got it.

LEI: Of the 121 Confucius Institutes that opened in the U.S. since 2004, only 20 or so remain open and some of those announced they’ll close in 2022.

BUCK: So what’s killing them, Lei?

LEI: Suspicion, mostly. It started with faculty concerns about academic freedom, shady deals with partner universities, lack of transparency.

BUCK: When was that?

LEI: Well the American Association of University Professors issued a statement in 2014 — the same year I was in Minnesota — urging American universities to cease their collaborations or fix the problems.

BUCK: And Congress put the ax down, too, right?

LEI: Right, Buck. Chop, chop, chop:

• 2018, the National Defense Authorization Act restricted colleges hosting Confucius Institutes from receiving federal funding for language classes.

• 2020, the State Department designated CI headquarters a “foreign mission.”

• 2021, the National Defense Authorization Act restricted research funding for universities with Confucius Institutes.

You get the idea.

BUCK: What did they fear?

LEI: Spying, theft of intellectual property, propaganda. You know, they rounded up the usual suspects.

BUCK: I’m shocked — shocked! Like the police chief in “Casablanca.”

LEI: Buck, there’s a Confucius Institute in Casablanca.

BUCK: You’re kidding.

LEI: No, at the University Hassan II in Morocco. There’s a growing demand in Arab countries to learn the new language of commerce — Chinese.

BUCK: I see.

LEI: We have an ancient Chinese expression to explain what happened to those Confucius Institutes in the U.S.

BUCK: What’s that?

LEI: They threw the baby out with the bath water.

BUCK: LOL. I think I understand our best hope for peace right now.

LEI: What’s that?

BUCK: People-to-people exchanges for everybody like this one between you and me.

LEI: Right, Buck. That might be our best defense against people going nuclear.

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding.

You can read the first part of this exchange, “A new Cold War recipe: Take China’s overconfidence, add our misperceptions, then dip it in a batter of ‘strategic ambiguity,’” at https://bit.ly/3zeUJga.

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