Translator’s Note: Since the original publication of this article, a number of the U.S. State Department requests it discusses were altered.

A May 17 directive from the U.S. State Department announced that numerous Chinese teachers from the Confucius Institute currently holding J-1 Visas will be required to leave the United States by June 30. The State Department announced that their visas would not be renewed but that they would be allowed reapply for the appropriate visas after they returned to China. Americans from all walks of life expressed shock, confusion and disbelief at this announcement. On May 22, the American Inside Higher Ed website ran an article discussing how this decision would adversely affect the educational activities of the institute.

A letter written by the director of the Office of Chinese Language Council International, Hanban, and general director of the Confucius Institute headquarters on March 20 to American university presidents in charge of setting up Confucius Institutes noted that China has always abided by American laws and regulations and that it would be very unfortunate to have such an event lead to the end of volunteer programs. The letter also stated that such a request would lead to a shortage of Chinese teachers that would ultimately hurt the students and schools.

The director of the Confucius Institute also sent a letter to a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education magazine on March 23, stating that he was deeply concerned over the decision by the State Department to investigate the qualifications of the teachers at the Confucius Institute. The director wrote, “I am concerned about the impact this will have on the agreement between American educational bodies and Hanban and other Chinese institutes of higher learning.”

U.S. Call to Halt Visas Leaves Many Perplexed

This State Department-signed directive was sent to all the Confucius Institutes in the U.S. It stated that although the Confucius Institute promotes cultural exchanges, all of its activities must abide by the proper rules and norms regarding exchanges and must adhere to the corresponding statutes. As stated in the announcement, professors, research scholars, short-term visiting scholars and students of the institute or universities are not permitted to teach in private and public primary or secondary schools. Such activities are not in accordance with statues regarding exchange programs. Only after obtaining the necessary approval are teachers able to arrange Chinese courses. Moreover, teachers with J-1 Visas are only permitted to work in the foreign language departments of these educational bodies.

J-1 Visas are a type of non-immigrant visa and are issued to foreigners who participate in State Department-approved “exchange visitor programs.” Our reporter learned that the American government had inquired into the visa status of those with J-1 Visas sometime earlier this year.

The most difficult thing to understand about this directive is that the Confucius Institute must now seek approval from the U.S. government. “The Department is reviewing the academic viability of the Confucius Institutes. … Confucius Institutes, therefore, must apply for U.S. accreditation in order to offer teaching opportunities at the Institute or other colleges/universities …” the directive stated. The directive also noted that, “Based on the Department’s preliminary review, it is not evident that these Institutes are U.S.-accredited …” and that accreditation is required to ensure that the quality of education meets the appropriate standards.

Our reporter was informed that the Confucius Institute offers noncredit courses and does not award degrees. In other words, the Confucius Institute does not possess the prerequisites to seek approval. Furthermore, up until now, the U.S. government has not indicated whom the institute should seek approval from. Comparatively speaking, the cultural exchanges of Germany’s Goethe-Institut and France’s Federation of Alliance Francaises U.S.A. don’t require approval. The directors of the Confucius Institutes at the University of Maryland — home to America’s first Confucius Institute — and George Mason University told the reporter that they are very perplexed by this request and had spent much time discussing this “accreditation” issue.

Smear Campaign by Political Forces

The announcement raised many difficult questions for the institute. Confucius Institutes all across the country were shocked by the announcement and have begun discussing how to respond to the situation.

Public opinion showed that many do not understand why the State Department would suddenly launch these regulations, because after all, the Confucius Institute has been a part of American campuses for nearly 10 years. As the Hanban director pointed out, the aim of the Confucius Institute is to help people all across the world learn Chinese, understand Chinese culture, increase overseas education, culture and cooperation, and promote friendship between China and the world.

The establishment of Confucius Institutes in the U.S. was initially voluntarily applied for by the U.S. The U.S. had also asked that Hanban send volunteers to the American Confucius Institutes to provide assistance. The Chinese volunteers overcame numerous difficulties to provide enthusiastic service and were warmly welcomed by both the schools and the parents. Throughout the process of setting up Confucius Institutes, China and America worked hand-in-hand with impressive results, including making enormous contributions towards promoting Sino-U.S. exchanges.

Confucius Institutes have been set up in 350 cities in 106 countries, with primary and secondary school classrooms seeing the fastest development — now totaling over 500. Since the first American Confucius Institute was set up in 2004 at University of Maryland in cooperation with Nankai University, an additional 80 have been established throughout the country as well as over 300 primary and secondary school Confucius classrooms. Of these classrooms, 127 are directly affiliated with the Confucius Institute.

However, there is undoubtedly a political force at work here, one that has always criticized the Confucius Institute and has sought to blacken its name and educational activities. On March 28, while the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on the price of Sino-U.S. public diplomacy, Congressional member Dana Rohrabacher blamed China for spreading propaganda through privately owned media and public education.

American People Value Exchange

On March 22 professors and doctoral students from the University of Virginia told reporters that they all felt that studying Chinese is very important because it helps promote communication and understanding between the U.S. and China.

Wei Wei, a Chinese teacher for grades one through five at John Eaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. told reporters that the students’ parents all hope that the school can continue providing Chinese classes. Many of the other teachers at the school felt the same way because they feel that Chinese will be an important communication tool as China’s economy continues to rapidly develop.

One of the mothers of Wei Wei’s students told our reporter that there are not many schools that offer Chinese courses. She and her husband spent a lot of time before finding an elementary school that offered Chinese. The mother and a number of other parents all claimed that their children loved studying Chinese and praised Wei Wei for her exceptional teaching skill. The parents all expressed their desire that such courses would continue in the future.

The director of the Confucius Institute at George Mason University said that he hopes that the new regulations were not out of a political consideration. After all, it was Obama who proposed the 100,000 Strong Initiative that encouraged American students to study Chinese in China.

The director of the Confucius Institute headquarters pointed out that the 100,000 Strong Initiative was a main component of the Humanities Exchange Mechanism agreed upon by China and the U.S. and was strongly supported by the Chinese government. In order to see that the initiative came to fruition, Hanban provided financial aid to over 10,000 American students and teachers to study in China. Now, it is the very teachers who helped recruit these Americans that the U.S. government has asked to leave by June 30!

Our reporter learned that the State Department directive was met with disgust from many American university presidents who felt that such an act was interfering with the sovereignty of the schools’ teachers. Many are now in the process of contacting and trying to work out a deal with the State Department. In the face of such reactions, State Department officials are planning to meet with school officials from the University of Maryland and Confucius Institute on May 23.