Fewer Chinese academics in the US will worsen US-China disconnect

With rising US-China tensions and American society’s dissatisfaction with China, as well as a shrinking higher education market, Chinese academics teaching China-related humanities subjects in the US and their already-marginalised departments and courses have been affected. US academic Wu Guo believes that the future generation’s understanding of the Chinese language and of China's culture and history will deteriorate as a result and worsen the disconnect between the US and China.
People take pictures of the Forbidden City after an overnight snowfall in Beijing, China, 22 January 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
People take pictures of the Forbidden City after an overnight snowfall in Beijing, China, 22 January 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

In my previous article, I wrote that the US’s perception of China is based on a systematic and grand national plan — a comprehensive and interdisciplinary US-centric regional studies system, designed and consolidated for decades, and aimed at building the US’s global knowledge system and nurturing the next generation of leaders. Such a system established a solid and coherent academic foundation for the US’s perception of China in the post-World War II era. 

This system has not only benefited from the efforts of a large number of US-based Chinese academics and Chinese language teachers, but also from China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s, which allowed many American academics to conduct fieldwork and case studies in China across various disciplines with the assistance of their Chinese counterparts.

The latest statistics show that as of February 2022, only 19 Confucius Institutes remain in the US, down from 103 in April 2017.

Chinese programmes declining 

This trend has changed over the past couple of years. Firstly, China’s Confucius Institute programmes, which it uses to promote the learning and understanding of the Chinese language and culture, are facing growing barriers in the US.

The latest statistics show that as of February 2022, only 19 Confucius Institutes remain in the US, down from 103 in April 2017. While the US government does not have the right to close the institutes directly, they have forced some universities to end their cooperation with Confucius Institutes by cutting federal funding to universities and colleges where Confucius Institutes operate. Under such pressure, five of the 19 remaining Confucius Institutes are also scheduled to either close down or be put on hold while the university conducts a review.

Confucius Institute at Troy University, Alabama, US. (Photo: Kreeder13/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Confucius Institute at Troy University, Alabama, US. (Photo: Kreeder13/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Secondly, the college I work at has also announced that it will terminate its longstanding and well-developed Chinese Studies Programme. The programme has been operating for nearly 20 years, has partners in China, and is part of the US’s higher education system. As a result, tenured Chinese professors have been asked to leave, and there will no longer be East Asian languages to choose from among the foreign languages offered, although the college will continue to run its Spanish, German, French and Arabic programmes. This move will further limits students’ choices and exposure to the Chinese language as well as to Chinese writing, literature, films and cultural values. 

Thirdly, US universities have seen annual declines in enrollment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and demographic changes. Last year, within a non-language department of a relatively small midwestern university, a tenured Chinese professor of history was forced to resign. Based on what I saw on the university's website, the remaining professors are all Caucasian.

Finally, when Chinese history professors leave the university or pass away, some universities choose not to fill the positions, meaning that those history departments would no longer have anyone specialising in Chinese history.

In this file photo taken on 11 March 2020, students walk on the campus of University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in Los Angeles, California, US. (Robyn Beck/AFP)
In this file photo taken on 11 March 2020, students walk on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, US. (Robyn Beck/AFP)

The US has maintained relatively high standards in China research partly through the work of top universities and partly through its rigorous teaching methods that ensure that students from all colleges big and small can take courses that allow for extensive reading, writing and discussions about China. However, even if the teaching quality can be ensured at regular colleges, the professors' jobs are in jeopardy as campuses can easily decide to do away with faculty positions or to dismiss tenured professors.

Disciplines such as literature, history and philosophy are increasingly marginalised in American universities, among which China-related faculties and programmes have been further sidelined. 

Marginalisation of China studies in the US

In 1979, Chinese historian Ray Huang, then 61 years old and a pioneer in the study of China’s “macro-history”, was terminated from his teaching position at the State University of New York (New Paltz). The faculty faced layoffs due to low enrollment in the East Asian Studies programme. Even today, there are no Chinese historians among the 11 full-time professors and two adjunct professors in this East Asian Studies programme.

Disciplines such as literature, history and philosophy are increasingly marginalised in American universities, among which China-related faculties and programmes have been further sidelined. 

Since there is no standard curriculum requirement in American high schools apart from the compulsory American history course, world history and foreign language courses are offered based on the school’s decisions and the availability of teachers and resources. As a result, most students entering university do not have a foundation in the Chinese language, and starting to learn the language only in college is not very effective. 

People walk past a 112-metre-long installation entitled "Gold Waves" by teamLab at Shanghai’s Lujiazui sbuway station in China on 26 January 2022. (AFP)
People walk past a 112-metre-long installation entitled "Gold Waves" by teamLab at Shanghai’s Lujiazui sbuway station in China on 26 January 2022. (AFP)

At the same time, because some college students have thus far only learnt American history and have not been exposed to the history and culture of other countries during high school, or they only have a general idea of world history, they are more accustomed to studying American and European history. They lack interest and motivation to learn more about China, a country that has little to do with their everyday lives or linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, curricula related to China and South Asia in American universities are usually marginalised and when times are hard, the first to be cut.

The neoliberal nature of American universities also makes it necessary for the institutions to adapt to market needs.

Institutional reality for the next generation

The neoliberal nature of American universities also makes it necessary for the institutions to adapt to market needs. As students have the freedom to choose and change their specialisations, departments are actively competing for students, with some colleges even hiring consulting firms to determine the direction the school should head and evaluate the majors it offers. Thus, the security that tenure provides is relative. 

In the event that a university faces bankruptcy or a shut down, an entire department could be removed (as was the case of the sociology department at my university many years ago). Retrenchments could also occur as a result of mergers and restructuring among teaching programmes, and in such cases, tenured positions no longer offer a lifetime of job security.

China should expand its information flow and academic exchanges, as well as strengthen its comprehensive understanding of other countries and regions.

A worker installs lanterns ahead of Chinese New Year at Yu Garden, in Shanghai, China, 18 January 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)
A worker installs lanterns ahead of the Chinese New Year at Yu Garden, in Shanghai, China, 18 January 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)

With rising US-China tensions and American society’s dissatisfaction with China, as well as a shrinking higher education market, academics teaching China-related humanities subjects in the US and their already-marginalised departments and courses have been affected. The removal of these courses and specialisations is not only disadvantageous to the survival of Chinese academics in the US but also negatively impacts average middle-class American students’ ability to understand China through a college education.

While some American students have voiced out through campus media that such actions go against the trend of the times, this could become an institutional reality that this generation of youths must face. Given such circumstances, I think that China should expand its information flow and academic exchanges, as well as strengthen its comprehensive understanding of other countries and regions.

Related: Why the Americans know China better than the Chinese know the US | US academic: US-centric worldview and hostile policies hindering US-China exchanges | US academic: Learning Chinese is another political battleground for China and the US | Why the Chinese people are invisible in US media | The China story is not just about politics, Confucius and mooncakes