September 26, 2013

Maine leaders laud wisdom of Confucius Institute

Establishment of the language school at USM is seen as a useful way to increase ties to China and its export markets.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

GORHAM – A Chinese language and cultural institute that has been controversial on some college campuses opened in Maine for the first time Wednesday.

click image to enlarge

Nicole McCallum, with the Chinese and American Friendship Association of Maine, does a celebration dance during the inaugural ceremony for the Confucius Institute at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

The state's first Confucius Institute, set up by Hanban, an arm of China's Ministry of Education, officially opened at the University of Southern Maine. It is one of more than 90 Confucius Institutes in the United States and more than 400 worldwide.

The institute's primary purpose is to provide language instruction with a focus on Mandarin. However, leaders in government, business and education in Maine also see it as a vehicle for increasing the state's ties to China, the state's third-largest foreign market. Maine goods worth more than $275 million were exported to China in 2011.

Last year, Gov. Paul LePage led a 13-member trade delegation to China. Officials who went on the trip reported that their Chinese counterparts were very interested in more exchanges of students and teachers.

At the time, about 1,000 Chinese students were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in Maine. Several of those programs have expanded in the last year.

"This is an opportunity to build a bridge, and that's what we're looking for here." said Joseph McDonnell, dean of USM's College of Management and Human Service and the director of the USM Confucius Institute.

Confucius Institutes, part of China's diplomatic outreach, were created in 2004. Most focus on language and culture, while some have specific research roles or specialize in one topic, such as food.

Critics say the institutes have stifled academic freedom by asking host campuses and instructors to avoid discussing certain topics, such as Tibet, Falun Gong, human rights abuses, Taiwan and other issues considered controversial.

McDonnell said no such requests or issues were raised with the institute at USM.

But such concerns were significant enough to warrant a hearing in March 2012 before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. And the State Department has issued special guidance regarding the visas used by Chinese nationals working at Confucius Institutes.

Ted Sharp, who is the school superintendent in Gorham and a board member for the new institute, said the only way to get past such issues is to have resources, like Confucius Institutes, where the exchange of ideas, person-to-person, leads to better ties in the future.

"We need to build strategic partnerships with China," said Sharp, who has three teachers and about 25 students from his district getting language instruction through the institute this fall.

Sharp, who studied Chinese history, said a language school is a good start to better relations. "Through languages, you build friendship."

Several speakers at an opening ceremony Wednesday emphasized the value of improving relations with China.

"We hope the Confucius Institute will open doors," said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, addressing the visiting Chinese university dignitaries who came to Maine for the opening.

Brennan said the institute should lead not just to a better appreciation of Chinese language and culture, but "to mutually advantageous economic programs."

The institute's offices in Bailey Hall have bright red Chinese lanterns hanging in the entryway, a display of traditional Chinese wedding costumes and a 6-foot-tall scroll on the wall depicting the Chinese symbols for "China," "America" and "eternal friendship."

A Confucius arrangement works this way: A host university partners with a university in China, which provides instructors and materials. USM's partner is Dongbei University in Dalian, which was selected in part because Dalian is similar to Portland, with a large working port and a strong tourism and international business economy.

There are institutes at such premier universities as Stanford and Columbia. Nearby Confucius Institutes are at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

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