US curbs on China’s Confucius Institutes are welcome, but they’re not the real target

(Originally published here on August 18)

Washington has finally cornered China with its move against Confucius Institutes in the US (CIUS) last week.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s order that the US headquarters of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes must register as a foreign mission makes sense, but the distorted narrative that is being spun around the issue risks undermining the overall effort to counter Beijing.

An investigation by the US Congress’ own Government Accountability Office last year turned up nothing to suggest that Confucius Institute instructors are forcing Chinese Communist Party propaganda down the throats of Americans looking to learn Mandarin.

If the CIUS has been guilty of anything, it is the opacity of some of the contracts it has signed with US universities that host its programmes and – according to a 2017 report by the conservative-leaning National Association of Scholars, an organisation that would naturally seek to ferret out any malfeasance within the organisation – a reluctance to engage in topics deemed sensitive to Beijing.

With the glare of publicity over the past few years renewed by last week’s State Department order, the organisation couldn’t hope to undermine the US with pro-Beijing propaganda even if it wanted to.

This is not to suggest that the State Department was wrong to issue its order. The CIUS is, after all, an arm of the Chinese government, however indirectly. Moreover, the move is not nearly as limiting as the constraints the Chinese government has kept on American academics and instructors in China, not to mention diplomats and journalists.

But now that the CIUS is marked as a Chinese government outpost, let’s end the campaign against it here.

The threat China poses to the US comes not from its Mandarin instructors but from efforts by organisations and companies aligned with Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” development imperatives to covertly acquire American intellectual property and other data that will ultimately be used against the US commercially and militarily.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s militarisation of the South China Sea, its “re-education” strategy for Uygurs, as well as its efforts to isolate Taiwan and erase Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, make clear that the bilateral rivalry is about more than technology. In this competition between two very different political philosophies, Washington must not misapprehend what it’s up against.

The US needs experts fluent in Mandarin and clear about Beijing’s points of view, and if the Chinese government wants to fund that, great. In the current environment, the CIUS can’t hope to try to squelch debate about issues like Taiwan and Xinjiang on US campuses.

The State Department must also drop its assumption that there’s a critical mass of mainland Chinese longing for Western-style democracy, seeking help to overthrow a thoroughly evil Communist Party.

What gets lost in the cacophony of Washington’s anti-China rancour is the indisputable reality that the Communist Party pulled off an economic transformation of unprecedented proportions and that most mainland Chinese are proud of that accomplishment.

Washington’s ideologues may howl about how much this transformation was supported by the transfer of American technology, but that issue is now just an academic debate.

The current challenge facing the US government is to prove that a United States aligned with its allies in the post-war order it created offers a development model that is better suited for the future than China’s totalitarian surveillance state.

Unfortunately, the US is still being run by a president who speaks rhapsodically about his “beautiful” letters from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, does sword dances with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman – whom the CIA concluded ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and shows unswerving loyalty to Russia’s Vladimir Putin

Trump’s alignment with Putin-style democracy has come into the sharpest focus in his insistence that universal mail-in voting in the upcoming US election as a public health safety measure would be too fraught with errors and fraud to produce a legitimate result.

Not only is Trump not taking measures to ensure mail-in voting goes smoothly, US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican Party fundraiser who was appointed to his post this year with no prior experience at the US Postal Service, has recently put in place cost-saving measures, including reducing deliveries outside normal service.

But don’t expect Trump’s congressional allies to put forward a US Human Rights and Democracy Act.

Until he is removed from office, Trump will be a much bigger liability in the geostrategic contest between the US and China than the CIUS.

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