Wait, am I a Chinese spy now?

“Our students aren’t dumb. If they felt manipulated, they would go elsewhere”

Last August I woke up to find out I was a Chinese spy, remembers Erik Eging of the Confucius Institute US Center. This was news to me.

In mid-August, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared my office in Washington DC, the Confucius Institute US Center, a “foreign mission” being used to promote Chinese propaganda, recruit CCP spies at universities nationwide or worse.

He then repeated it again and again, including in a recent speech even though his department clearly miscategorised the CIUS as a “headquarters”.

With such critics well versed in government and history, it seems strange that I need to remind critics at large about the presumption of innocence until proven guilty – I’ve heard and read a lot of accusations, but evidence to back them up has been in short supply.

The CIUS Center has a mostly American staff of educators who can often be found nerd-ing out over the hyper specific stroke order of some Chinese character.

Even though we are not directly connected to any American university nor supervise CI programs, we still somehow pose enough of an existential threat to academic freedom (and America writ large) that it garnered the attention of Mr Pompeo’s eagle eyes. Or should I say hawkish? I’m still trying to figure that one out.

In a recent NPR The World report in which I was interviewed on CIUS’ current dilemma, Professor Emeritus at George Washington University Edward McCord discussed the misplaced ire against CI programs.

“They talked about them being propaganda in the classrooms and a malign influence on campuses, there is just no proof of that whatsoever,” he said.

“I think they just want to do something that’s anti-Chinese.”

That’s how it feels to fans of CI programs who have had to endure intense distribution of misinformation, lazy reporting, and misguided students groups who have decided to make it their life’s mission to direct their frustrations at language education programs.

I got into Chinese language as an undergrad at George Mason, still a kid who had spent the previous three years of his life working in a fast-food restaurant to get back into school. I took a Chinese language class on a whim and fell in love with it as well as my many professors, both American and Chinese alike, who helped me understand our two cultures on a much deeper level as we engaged in respectful dialogue – including topics on which we disagreed.

After graduation I found myself hitting the job market as the shine on US-Chinese relations had begun to fade, and my job prospects with it.

Just as I was considering running away to join the circus, I was hired by CIUS. I had found my people, a community of fellow language learners motivated by a passion for mastery and understanding.

Having read the slew of claims against CI programs before taking the position, I did the prudent thing and looked at the evidence. It’s ironic that a GAO report basically exonerates CI programs, noting that they are locally run with instructors and curriculum chosen by the schools. Our students aren’t dumb. If they felt manipulated, they would go elsewhere.

I don’t want to downplay concerns over China, but the attacks on CI programs seem like one more overreaction in a game of foreign policy theatre, targeting the wrong people in an attempt at a mission accomplished moment.

A Chinese language program is not the source of the problem between our two countries. Language skills provide people with the ability to make connections and overcome knowledge gap, which Pompeo himself admitted.

The loss of Chinese language programs at a time of rising tensions means that people will be further walled off, delegating important relationships to distant governments and political opportunists.

Despite this, too many people chose to parrot unsubstantiated talking points to stoke American fears.

We live in the era where mere accusation is too often reported as fact. My colleagues and I, are the convenient collateral damage of today; whose next tomorrow?

Erik Eging is the external communications director at CIUS. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and a minor in Global Affairs from George Mason University.