Confucius visas resolved

Updated: 2012-06-01 08:07

By an Yingzi in Washington (China Daily)

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When Fang Maotian entered the meeting room at the State Department on May 24, he was surprised and overwhelmed by the size of the United States' team.

Led by Robin J. Lerner, deputy assistant secretary for private sector exchange at the State Department, there were more than a dozen US officials waiting for urgent consultations with Fang, minister counselor for education affairs at the Chinese Embassy in the US, and his two colleagues.

With tension mounting over a confusing visa directive concerning Chinese language teachers in the US, the two sides had quickly reached out for dialogue and successfully found a solution within a couple of days to avoid any further misunderstanding.

On May 17, without consulting the Chinese side, Lerner signed a controversial visa policy directive and sent it to US universities that sponsor Confucius Institutes, through which the Chinese government promotes Chinese language and culture overseas.

The document stated that any faculty member who, through a college's J-1 exchange program, teaches students of elementary or secondary school age, is violating visa rules. It also stated that the educator must return to China by June 30 to reapply for an appropriate program.

If enacted, at least 51 Chinese teachers would have been forced to leave the US. About 600 currently work there, according to the Confucius Institute Headquarters, more commonly known as Hanban.

The directive also demanded that the institutes were required to obtain US accreditation to continue accepting foreign scholars and professors as teachers. It was the first time that such a requirement had been raised since the non-profit organizations began operating in 2005.

Most of the people working for the 81 institutes across the US were shocked and confused by such sudden and strict orders from Washington.

Over the following two days, phone calls and e-mails flooded into the State Department and the Chinese embassy, making inquiries. On May 20, Xu Lin, the head of Hanban, wrote a letter to her US university partners and said she hoped that the project would not be affected or halted by the directive.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington-based news service, first picked up the news and said if the institutes' teaching activities were curtailed by the new policy, there would be some impact on US-China relations.

Faced with the growing attention back home, Fang and his colleagues decided to find out the real reasons as soon as possible.

To show her seriousness about the issue, Lerner brought her whole team to meet the Chinese officials.

Through "candid" talk over the issue, the Chinese side expressed their grave concerns and raised their doubts; US officials clarified their intentions and admitted their errors in drafting the document.

Within 24 hours of this consultation, a revised policy directive was sent out on May 25 to clear up the mess. As a result, no Chinese teacher will be forced to leave the country and no accreditation is required for the institutes.

Before the new document came out, the US side gave Fang a preview copy for comment.