In a small room at the University of South Florida, Maya Ueda and two classmates prepare for a Mandarin exam. A pot of green tea idles nearby, and Chinese folk instruments, games, and movies fill the cabinets and bookcases.
Although the students are doing their work at a state school on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the center they are studying in is part of a global outreach by the government of China called the Confucius Institute. The cultural and language centers have sprung up around the world, hosted at universities eager to boost their Mandarin offerings as China’s economic influence grows.
The Confucius Institute at South Florida is one of nearly 60 such centers in the United States, and 396 globally in 87 countries. They fill language instruction needs at a time when many universities are grappling with budget cuts. Most receive initial funding and faculty from China.
Ueda, a 23-year-old psychology major, is planning a career in business, and many of the companies she is interested in require fluency in at least one Asian language. She believes having a firm grasp of Mandarin will help her stand out.
"By understanding that language and culture, I’ll be able to interact with Chinese business people," Ueda said. "I think that will definitely expand my career opportunities."
China observers see the Confucius Institutes as part of the nation’s efforts to reshape its image from that of a threatening superpower. Such displays of "soft power" are hardly new, though analysts say the Confucius Institutes are unique in the close relationships they establish with universities.
That arrangement has raised concerns about whether cozying up with China and its communist, authoritarian government might interfere with a university’s academic freedom.
The University of Pennsylvania never applied to host an institute, nor did China ever ask the school to do so, said G. Cameron Hurst III, the former director of Penn’s Center for East Asian Studies.
"There was a general feeling that it was not an appropriate thing for us to do," he said.
"We feel absolutely confident in the instructors that we train here, and we didn’t want them meddling in our curriculum, particularly," Hurst said of Chinese officials. "And we were not sure of what their political motivations really are, anyway."
Others say the institutes haven’t been a threat to academic integrity.
"It’s a very long term strategy to get people to appreciate Chinese culture," said Stan Rosen, director of the University of Southern California’s East Asian Studies Center. "They steer away from those kinds of political issues, just to teach straight language. Because they know this is exactly what critics of China might be looking for."
The Confucius Institutes have many precedents. Germany has its Goethe Institutes and France the Alliance Francaise. Britain, Italy, Spain, and other countries also have established centers in nations around the world to promote the study of their language and culture. The former United States Information Agency did something similar, though with the explicit goal of attempting to influence public attitudes abroad to support U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Demand for Mandarin classes has been growing. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, about 40,000 foreign students travel to take classes in China each year. Courses are popping up in schools in the United States as well, starting as early as kindergarten.
A study published by the Modern Language Association of America in 2007 found that enrollment in Chinese language courses at U.S. colleges and universities had increased 51 percent between 2002 and 2006 to 51,000. Most students still choose to study Spanish, French or German, but the report found that their dominance has been slowly decreasing.
"Our programs were maxed out," said Randy Kluver, director of the Confucius Institute at Texas A&M University.
Finding qualified Mandarin teachers has been a struggle in many parts of the country. It is a difficult language for many nonnative speakers to learn. A word’s meaning can change depending on the tone in which it is pronounced. Sentence structure, too, differs considerably from English and other European languages.
The first Confucius Institute outside China was established in Seoul, South Korea, in 2004. The first U.S. center was created at the University of Maryland. The institutes are largely at state universities. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese government plans to establish 500 Confucius Institutes by 2010. Today they range from Finland to Rwanda.
Each institute is paired with a Chinese university, which sends visiting instructors. Curriculum is determined by each institution, though China offers teaching materials and instruction models. Any messages about China are conveyed indirectly.
Maria Crummett, dean of international affairs at the University of South Florida, likened the institutes to "people-to-people diplomacy. This is not about diplomacy at the highest levels. This is about faculty, students, staff, administrators, the community."
Visiting Chinese teachers said they come face to face with skepticism about China in class, fielding questions such as, "How would China feel if Americans were taking jobs away from them?" and "Are all Chinese people good at kung fu?"
Those are the exceptions, said Yirong Luo, a visiting Mandarin teacher at the Confucius Institute at Texas A&M. Most students, Luo said, "very much want to know the real China."