Culture Clubs

US builds up cultural presence in China

Perhaps slightly surprising news from Inside Higher Ed on the establishment by the US State Department of “American Cultural Centres” in partnership with Chinese universities.

“Their primary purpose is to expose Chinese audiences to the depth and breadth of U.S. culture,” said Erik W. Black, an assistant cultural affairs officer at the American embassy in Beijing, which administers the grants. Colleges that have received them have used the funding to create resource centers or reading rooms, host visiting faculty lectures on American cultural topics, and sponsor arts programming.

This looks like a direct response to the significant spread in universities around the world of Confucius Institutes, supported and funded by the Chinese government. There are now well over 300 of these and, as can be seen from the Hanban website, they have a wide reach:

Over recent years, the Confucius Institutes’ development has been sharp and they have provided scope for people all over the world to learn about Chinese language and culture. In addition they have become a platform for cultural exchanges between China and the world as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world and are much welcomed across the globe. Through the joint efforts of China and the Confucius Institute host countries in addition to the enthusiasm and active support of people all over the world, by the end of 2010, there have been 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius Classrooms established in 96 countries. In addition, some 250 institutions from over 50 countries have expressed requirements for establishing Confucius Institutes/Classrooms, amongst them some of the world’s top universities.

Confucius Institutes/Classrooms adopt flexible teaching patterns and adapt to suit local conditions when teaching Chinese language and promoting culture in foreign primary schools, secondary schools, communities and enterprises. In 2009, Confucius Institutes/Classrooms around the world offered 9,000 Chinese courses of a multitude of styles, with a total enrollment of 260,000, a 130,000 strong enrollment increase from the previous year. More than 7,500 cultural exchange activities took place, involving the participation of over 3 million reaching double the participation figures of the corresponding period of the previous year.

Recognising the imbalance in public engagement levels in China’s favour the US has been looking for ways to make a greater impact in the East. One major operation was formally launched back in 2010 with the “100,000 Strong Initiative” which aims to encourage many more Americans to study in and learn about China:

The 100,000 Strong Initiative is transitioning into an independent, non-profit organization external to the State Department. Updates on the Initiative’s programs will be provided by the new non-profit organization soon. Citing the strategic importance of the U.S.-China relationship, in November 2009, President Barack Obama announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative, a national effort designed to increase dramatically the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially launched the initiative in May 2010 in Beijing. The Chinese government strongly supports the initiative and has already committed 10,000 “Bridge Scholarships” for American students to study in China.

This initiative seeks to prepare the next generation of American experts on China who will be charged with managing the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the United States and China. The initiative also seeks to develop specific opportunities and funding sources for underrepresented students to study in China.

The American Cultural Centres look like the next stage in this development:

The State Department’s request for proposals implicitly poses the Confucius Institutes as a model for the kind of university-to-university collaborations it is hoping to promote: “The PRC’s creation in the United States of multiple university-based ‘Confucius Institutes’ has increased the level and quality of the study of Chinese language and culture in the U.S,” the document states. “Though China as a national policy requires the study of the English language broadly among its students, there is no equivalent mechanism for increasing understanding and appreciation for the strength and diversity of American culture and society. While hundreds of affiliation agreements between U.S. and Chinese universities have promoted academic cooperation, the sharing of technical expertise, and U.S. study of China, they have done little to help address the overall level of misunderstanding of U.S. society and culture.”

The funding available is limited and is essentially pump-priming to support new and existing partnerships between US and Chinese universities. According to Inside Higher Ed there around 20 of these so far and they come in different forms:

Ohio State University used its $100,000 to create a resource center at Wuhan University, with which it has had a 30-year relationship. The center, housed in Wuhan’s foreign languages building, includes a lounge, kitchen, and resource library, complete with a large selection of American cookbooks. “We see it as a place where not only Wuhan faculty, but people from Hubei province and the city of Wuhan, can come and interact with people from Ohio State on a regular basis,” said William Brustein, Ohio State’s vice provost for global strategies and international affairs.

It’s a fascinating development and one which may help to redress the balance in time. Assuming that is that they are doing a little more than just sharing recipes.

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