Chinese teachers in visa mess
Updated: 2012-05-25 10:41
By Tan Yingzi in Washington, Cheng Yingqi and Luo Wangshu in Beijing (China Daily)
Teachers and students celebrate the launching of a Confucius classroom by the UCLA Confucius Institute in October. The US State Department said on Thursday that no Chinese teachers at Confucius Institutes in the US will have to leave the country by the end of June. [Wang Jun / China Daily]
US State Department clarifies its directive on Confucius Institutes
No Chinese teachers at Confucius Institutes in the United States will have to leave the country by the end of June, the State Department said Thursday, clarifying a directive issued last week that drew strong reactions from US universities that host the nonprofit institutes and their Beijing headquarters.
The department is working to clear up confusion over its visa-policy directive issued on May 17, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington. The directive was sent to universities that sponsor Confucius Institutes, a well-established means by China's government of promoting Chinese language and culture overseas.
The document said any faculty member who, through a college's J-1 exchange program, teaches students of elementary- or secondary-school age is violating visa rules. That educator, according to the directive, must return to China by June 30 to reapply for an appropriate program.
If enacted, the directive could force as many as 51 teachers to return home to China. About 600 currently work in the US, according to the Confucius Institute Headquarters, more commonly known as Hanban.
Nuland told reporters Thursday at the State Department's daily briefing that the US values people-to-people exchanges with China. She said the directive isn't aimed at Confucius Institutes but previous "muddling and messing up" in J-1 visa categories.
"So we're going to sort these out. Nobody's going to have to leave the country," she said. "It's all going to get cleared up. But there was some confusion on the front end, so we're going to fix it."
Schools were also thrown by the directive's demand that Confucius Institutes obtain US accreditation to continue accepting foreign scholars and professors as teachers.
"The department is reviewing the academic viability of the Confucius Institutes. Based on the department's preliminary review, it is not evident that those institutes are US-accredited," the directive states.
A Chinese education official in the US, who requested anonymity, said this is the first time a question of accreditation concerning the Confucius Institutes has been raised.
The first institute in the US was established at the University of Maryland in 2005. Since then, Hanban has dispatched more than 2,100 teachers. It says the 81 Confucius Institutes across the country are established jointly by applicant US universities and counterpart campuses in China.
Each institute is run independently.
"All headquarters resources that were given to the Confucius Institutes, including guest teachers, were provided based on requests from the US," said a Hanban official who didn't want to be identified by name.
By Tuesday, the State Department appeared to be backpedaling from the accreditation demand.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington-based publication, cited an unnamed department official as saying the part of the policy directive on accreditation was "confusing" and would be redrafted to clarify that Confucius Institutes that have partnerships with accredited colleges are in compliance with visa regulations.
"This is not about the Confucius Institutes or about the Chinese model," the official said. "This is just simply a regulatory matter."
Huajing Maske, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky, told China Daily that both sides need to find a middle way to resolving the visa issue.
"I understand the J-1 visa category concern from the State Department, as I would like to think that the State Department is thinking about and preparing for the expansion of the Chinese programs in the K-12 schools, brought by the huge success of these programs and the warm welcome that these programs have received," she said.
The visa controversy has raised concerns in China that relations with the US could be harmed.
Discussions are taking place between China and the US. China is "in consultation" with the US on the issue, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
"We hope the issue will be addressed appropriately and will not affect the development of the programs," Hong said.
A senior official at Hanban, who asked not to be identified, said teachers go through a strict process of selection by both China and the US, and receive special training.
"I thought that since the teachers were granted visas after receiving invitations from the US, there would not be a problem," he said. "As someone who is responsible for Confucius Institutes in the US, I was shocked" by the directive.
"All the teachers embarked on their trip in a spirit of friendship but are being forced back with the feeling that they were not welcome. Isn't this harming friendship between Chinese and American people?
"What is hard to understand," he added, "is that the US, which is known for its strict visa policies, has, for years, allowed the Chinese teachers to hold their current visas. The US State Department and other agencies have never mentioned this issue to us before, but then suddenly it makes an announcement. Why?"
As the number of Confucius Institutes in the US is growing fast to meet the strong demand for Chinese-language study, the program is also facing criticism from some politicians.
In March, the US Congress held a hearing on China's public diplomacy in the US and strongly criticized the operation of the Confucius Institutes.
Kelly Dawson in New York contributed to the story.
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