In November 2020, just a few months after the Indian government decided to remove Mandarin from the suggested languages that could be taught in schools, and review the Confucius Institutes and classrooms inside the country, Assam Don Bosco University (ADBU) located in northeast India launched its first Mandarin program in partnership with Taiwan and received in just a few hours more than 200 applications for 40 seats offered. When asked about why they wanted to enrol in the Mandarin class, most ADBU students expressed their desire of learning new languages and discovering different cultures, and their wish that Mandarin proficiency will open up opportunities for further studies and improve their career prospects.

The relative remoteness of the northeastern region didn’t hinder these students from being farsighted. Mandarin is the second-most spoken language in the world, with over 1.1 billion speakers. It is the official language of Taiwan and China, one of the four official languages of Singapore, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. As Sinophone (Mandarin-speaking) cultural areas, many people speak Mandarin in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Canada and the United States. According to Bloomberg Rankings, Mandarin is also the top business language other than English.

The Mandarin classes in non-Sinophone countries are mostly delivered by teachers from China and Taiwan, however, the way China and Taiwan manage their partnership with the host institutions differs greatly.

Having noticed that Mandarin was attracting an increasing number of learners, former Chinese vice premier and Politburo member LIU Yandong (who was also the then head of United Front Work Desk, Chinese Communist Party’s main organ of propaganda) founded in 2004 Hanban, the Confucius Institute (CI) Headquarters, aiming to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries. However, the quotation from LI Changchun, a ranking member of the Politburo, says better the true nature of CI: “the Confucius Institute is an important part of China’s foreign propaganda strategy”.

Since its foundation, CI has functioned as a powerful tool for Chinese authorities to build a favourable image of CCP outside China. It is reported that from 2008 to 2016, Hanban spent more than $2 billion on Confucius Institutes worldwide. By providing host institutions generous foundings, CIs spread rapidly, with currently more than 500 Confucius Institutes and 1000 Confucius classrooms spanning over 150 countries.

Nevertheless, the lavish Hanban money comes with strings attached, which raise serious concerns, in these non-disclosure clauses, academic integrity along with democratic values are compromised. A growing number of host institutions accuse CI of violating academic freedom (banning debates on topics of which China wants to monopolise the narrative, such as Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen), and imposing a curriculum that presents a biased version of contemporary Chinese history. Many institutions are eager to appease Hanban even practice self-censorship, which poses a threat to democratic societies since universities must act as critics and conscience of society.

These charges are echoed by a 2019 Human Rights Watch report which notes that “Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration.”

The irony is palpable: the 5th century BC Chinese philosopher fiercely denounced by CCP during the Cultural Revolution decade now saw his name used by this same CCP as a brand for totalitarian propaganda wrapped in language and culture and associated with malevolent Trojan Horse by perceptive observers. A quotation from Confucius himself summarises best this absurdity: “when the name is not right, the words will not ring true”.

The realisation that CI is not just CCP’s benign instrument for expanding soft power (some analysts even described CI as ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of China’s sharp power) has led many countries to close their Confucius Institutes in recent years, including U.S., Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden. After this avalanche of closure, Hanban was renamed as Center for Language Education and Cooperation in an attempt to rebrand this controversial Office.

India has joined this long list of countries guarding against CCP’s infiltration by reviewing the Confucius Institutes and classrooms and dropping Mandarin from the foreign language list in National Education Policy. While the scruple over CCP-sponsored Confucius Institutes is fully understandable and justified, downplaying Mandarin learning seems to be untactical vis-à-vis Indo-China tensions.

Deep-rooted enmity owing to border disputes might explain Indian apathy towards Mandarin learning, however, experts point out that India should instead encourage its citizens to learn Mandarin, to expand the expertise that the country needs in dealing with its unpredictable and threatening neighbour. In this context, Taiwan, the Mandarin-speaking democracy sharing multiple common values and interests with India, emerges as an ideal partner for language learning, for understanding the cultures and psyche of Mandarin-speaking peoples, and much more beyond.

Taiwan has a long history and rich experience in Mandarin teaching at home and abroad. Since the 1950s, Taiwan has been an important Mandarin learning stronghold where diplomats, sinologists, linguists and students come for its high-quality teaching, its diverse cultures, its undestroyed traditional Chinese scripts which preserve the essence of ancient wisdom, and its dynamic and democratic lifestyle.

Taiwan’s longstanding overseas Mandarin teaching is also gaining momentum in recent years and is widely acclaimed by international partners. The feedback of the above-mentioned ADBU students can provide a glimpse of what a Mandarin classroom with a Taiwanese lecturer is like. After having completed variously 150 hours and 60 hours of learning, students from different batches unanimously expressed their satisfaction with the Mandarin program, whether in terms of course content, pedagogy, learning outcomes or classroom interaction. The students described the Mandarin classes as “excellent”, “well-planned”, “lively”, “interactive” and “culturally rich”, among others. Learner-oriented, innovative and animated are the characteristics most often associated with the classes conducted by Taiwanese teachers, and it can be said that this classroom culture is nurtured in a free academic and societal environment in which critical thinking and creativity are encouraged.

Assam Don Bosco University is one of 19 higher education institutions in India offering Mandarin courses in partnership with Taiwan, and all of them are affirmative regarding this healthy collaboration without dubious agreement. In these Mandarin classes, students enjoy learning through interactive activities, the freedom of speech is respected and the host universities don’t suffer from interference, let alone censorship. According to Dr Riju Sharma, Director of School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Assam Don Bosco University, in this partnership, both sides “learn, share and appreciate global perspectives and multicultural values and practices.” This is the true spirit of cooperation, and India can benefit from it with a natural and reliable partner like Taiwan.

The author teaches Mandarin at Assam Don Bosco University, Guwahati, Assam, India.

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