Taiwan’s Chance to Become the Chinese-language Center of Excellence

As more countries, concerned about academic interference, begin to close down the China-facilitated Confucius Institutes on their university campuses, Taiwan is in a unique position to fill the gap by exporting its Chinese-language teaching expertise and drawing more students to the island for language study.

At the end of 2020, then American Institute in Taiwan Director Brent Christensen made a surprising statement at a ceremony to launch the U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative. He suggested that Taiwan could help meet a shortfall in Chinese language instruction in the U.S. left by the accelerated closure of China’s controversial Confucius Institutes. His call was echoed by 21 Republican members of Congress in April this year in a letter urging the Department of Education to use the initiative with Taiwan to offer “censorship-free alternatives” on U.S. college campuses.

With its strong Chinese-language teaching culture, long-running, well-respected Chinese-language teaching programs, and democratic system and progressive values, Taiwan appears to have the credentials to satisfy Christensen’s invitation. And on the surface, it presents a soft power win for Taiwan as well, though some academics caution that attempting to replace Confucius Institutes might not be in the island’s best interests.

Confucius Institutes have long courted controversy. Affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, these language and culture education centers are embedded in overseas universities and colleges. They have been accused of interfering with the host university’s academic freedom and censoring classroom content regarding issues deemed sensitive by Beijing, such as Taiwan’s international status.

According to the New York-based nonprofit National Association of Scholars (NAS), there are 41 Confucius Institutes remaining in the U.S., although nine of them are set to close this year. That’s down from 103 in 2017. Elsewhere, Sweden closed all its Confucius Institutes in 2020, while Australia and Japan are currently reviewing the future of theirs and may well order them shuttered by the end of this year.

In the U.S., the pace of closures picked up in 2018 as relations between Washington and Beijing took an obvious downturn. That year, a new law cut Department of Defense funding for language programs at any university that continued to host a Confucius Institute. The pressure mounted still further in 2020 when the U.S. State Department designated Confucius Institutes as “foreign missions,” forcing them to be more transparent about their operations.

While Taiwan does not have an equivalent to the Confucius Institutes, it does support a number of different programs and partnerships that send Taiwanese teachers and teaching assistants to classrooms overseas. The Ministry of Education (MOE) says it sent 392 teachers and teaching assistants to 22 countries in 2019 (the last year not impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic) to teach Chinese, more than double the 186 sent to 20 countries in 2015. The biggest growth took place in Asia. Beyond arranging the exchange, the MOE sponsors the instructors’ airfare, a monthly stipend, and a teaching materials allowance, with the host institution covering other costs such as salary, accommodations, and visa.

In 2016, the MOE set up the Office of Global Mandarin Education (OGME) to both promote Chinese-language teaching overseas and to attract students to come to Taiwan to study. The ministry also worked with National Taiwan University in 2018 to offer beginner and intermediate level Chinese-language programs on online course provider Coursera.

Taiwan’s government also cooperates with foreign-run projects, such as the U.S.’ Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program run by Fulbright Taiwan, as well as private partnerships, for example between individual universities. Focusing on culture, rather than language, 16 Taiwan Academies around the world (including such locations as Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, and New York) promote Taiwanese art, drama, literature, and other creative pursuits, according to John Lee, director of the Taiwan Academy in Washington, D.C.

It’s not just the closure of Confucius Institutes that is edging interest toward Taiwan and away from China. In recent years, China’s reputation has suffered from mounting human rights concerns, especially over the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang and the steep erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong under a new National Security Law, not to mention accusations of impeding global efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19. Tensions between Washington and Beijing led to the U.S.’ closure of the Fulbright China educational exchange program, which also sponsored the placement of teaching assistants from China in U.S. universities and colleges.

That move partly explains why Fulbright Taiwan is sending more teaching assistants to the U.S. this year, according to Randall Nadeau, the program’s executive director. Some 45 will be heading off to U.S. campuses this fall, more than twice the number that went in 2019. There’s potential for further growth too, Nadeau says, adding that Fulbright is one of the key mechanisms through which the U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative is expected to be implemented.

The island also has a long-standing history of providing Chinese-language education. The Mandarin Training Center (MTC) at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) began its first classes back in 1956, while Stanford University set up the Inter-University Program (later renamed the International Chinese Language Program (ICLP)) at National Taiwan University (NTU) in 1962.

The quality of teacher training in Chinese is also “very high caliber,” says Nadeau. “Taiwan’s Teaching Chinese as a Second Language programs are really, really good. They’re very professional and many have been around for a long time.” There are 62 Chinese learning centers in Taiwan affiliated with a university or college. Many of these centers also run teacher training programs for Chinese as a second language and have established exchange programs with overseas institutions. In addition to MTC and ICLP, which have world-class reputations, many others are well-regarded, including NTU’s own Chinese Language Division program and Cheng Kung University’s Chinese Language Center in Tainan.

Due to its reputation for providing high-quality language learning, around 32,000 students studied Mandarin in Taiwan in 2019. Photo: ICLP

To compete with China’s Chinese-language proficiency test, the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), NTNU rolled out its own standardized exam, the Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) in 2003. In 2019, the test, which is in both simplified and traditional characters, was taken by around 69,000 students in 43 countries and in Taiwan, according to the body that administers it. This is a not insignificant number, although it is much less than the 6.8 million students who took the HSK in 2018, as reported by Chinese state media.

Another factor weighing in Taiwan’s favor is that it is a progressive democracy with values shared by open societies, a reality that is reflected in the content of its language-learning materials. In addition, the content of textbooks from China is often highly political and socially conservative, reflecting its authoritarian system of government. Put side by side, Taiwan’s educational materials are more accessible, interesting, and relevant to students, at least those from democracies.

Take for example the main textbook series from each side used for studying their respective standardized tests. MTC’s A Course in Contemporary Chinese 5 offers lesson topics ranging from free speech to legalizing same-sex marriage. Compare this to its equivalent in China – Beijing Language and Culture University Press’ Standard Course HSK 5, which has lesson topics on filial duty, 20th-century Chinese author Lu Xun, and quadrangle courtyards.

A better model

At face value, the push from the U.S. to give Taiwan a greater role in educating American students in Chinese language looks like a good opportunity for the island to promote its identity, culture, and values overseas. It is clearly a positive opportunity for a place that struggles daily to be acknowledged on the global stage. According to Shiany Perez-Cheng, a research associate at the Institute for Statecraft, a UK-based pro-democracy think tank, “Taiwanese teachers are actually de facto civilian ambassadors,” a role she says “helps create a network of diverse connections and elevates international visibility.”

However, other academics caution that problems with the Confucius Institute approach simply make it a bad model to follow. “I don’t think it is ideal for the Taiwanese programs to fill a disreputable gap,” argues Chang Bi-yu, Deputy Director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. “Confucius Institutes are a textbook example of ‘what not to do’ in public diplomacy or cultural diplomacy.”

Even the NAS, which has long campaigned to get Confucius Institutes out of American universities, does not welcome a Taiwan-run version. “Taiwan is a more trustworthy partner than the Chinese Communist government, but colleges shouldn’t be turning to foreign funders, period,” Rachelle Peterson, an NAS Senior Research Fellow, wrote in an email.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s educational outreach is a very different model from China’s Confucius Institutes. SOAS’ Chang describes Taiwan’s current efforts as more of a “long-term exchange project, not a political vehicle” – and notes that it “respects local conditions and works with the institutions, rather than taking over or dictating the existing courses.” Taiwan, for example, provides Hoklo [Taiwanese dialect] teaching support at SOAS, she says. In contrast, Confucius Institutes almost exclusively teach standard Mandarin and only in simplified characters, although many other languages and dialects are used by millions of people in China, including Cantonese, Hoklo, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Uyghur. Indeed, inside China, Tibetans and Mongolians who have advocated for local language education in their children’s schools have ended up in jail.

Another factor in the equation is the danger of retaliation. “Taiwan does have to take a smart approach when deciding which countries to collaborate with to establish Mandarin language programs,” says Perez-Cheng. “It is not a farfetched concern there could be some pushback from China and [uncertainty regarding] whether those countries would be able and or willing to stand up to Beijing.”

Perez-Cheng should know, as she has had firsthand experience with such Chinese “pushback.” In 2017, while she was a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the University of Salamanca, the Chinese embassy in Madrid forced the cancellation of a public event celebrating Taiwanese culture that she was organizing. A year later, she went public with the embassy’s threatening email after witnessing China’s escalating interference in freedom of speech overseas.

Perez-Cheng suggests that Taiwan look for opportunities to expand its educational reach in countries that have already closed some or all of their Confucius Institutes or have stood up against Chinese interference on campus, such as Sweden, France, and the UK. “Not all countries are on the same page regarding Confucius Institutes,” she says. “For example, in Spain, my hometown university in Salamanca has an agreement [to open a Confucius Institute] pending the ceremonial signature,” while Seville University has signed a local agreement to pursue the opening of a Confucius Institute in Seville.

One place that does have a lot of experience in pushing back against Chinese interference is Vietnam. The country has just one Confucius Institute (in Hanoi), compared with other nations in the region such as Thailand with more than 20. Tam Sang Huynh, lecturer at the Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, says that Vietnam has resisted Beijing’s efforts to establish more centers so far because of a long-running distrust of its larger neighbor based on historical animosity – China invaded Vietnam in 1979, and the two have land disputes in the South China Sea.

Huynh says that for Taiwan to successfully replace Confucius Institutes, the host governments must take on a proactive role and stand with Taipei. “If the U.S. took the lead in helping Taiwan, then this is an invitation that Taiwan should embrace.” He is more pessimistic about European support for Taiwan on this front. Unlike the U.S., which has supported Taiwan in recent years, Europe is fragmented in its response, he says. “Some countries like Germany have been reluctant to respond to China’s rise; they don’t want to form a united front towards China for fear of antagonizing it.”

Rather than focusing on replacing Confucius Institutes overseas, some academics argue that Taiwan would do better to invest more in attracting students to come to the island and learn Chinese here. “I would suggest boosting scholarships and welcoming students to come to Taiwan to live and learn,” says SOAS’ Chang.

That sentiment is echoed by I-wei Jennifer Chang, research fellow with the Washington DC-based Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) think tank. She argues that bringing in students from outside Taiwan would also help local universities struggling with low student numbers due to flagging birth rates and help transform the island into a “new meeting ground” for the next generation of China or Taiwan hands “as many countries around the world have sought to offset China’s cultural influence and soft power.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan had already been attracting more overseas students to study Chinese at local universities. The numbers coming to the island to study Chinese at one of the 62 MOE-recognized programs at universities and colleges more than doubled to 32,457 in 2019 (the last year unaffected by Covid-19) from the number in 2013, according to OGME.

Launched in 2020, the U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative aims to expand access to Mandarin and English language instruction while safeguarding academic freedom. Photo: AIT

Taiwan’s interests, then, may be best served by increasing its existing efforts, which include working with governments and universities overseas that welcome and support educational exchanges with Taipei, as well as investing more into making Taiwan the place to study Chinese. The invitation extended by AIT’s Christensen may end up marking a turning point in Chinese-language education worldwide, helping bring it full circle from Taiwan to China and back to Taiwan again. Before China’s inclusion in the United Nations and its reform and opening up in the 1970s, students in the West, who went on to become China hands or diplomats, often studied Chinese in Taiwan.

“Taiwan could reclaim its past glory by training the next generation of China experts and academics around the world,” predicts GTI’s Chang.