TOPICS : China’s role in US Chinese classes

Let’s suppose that a cruel, tyrannical, and repressive foreign government offered to pay for US teens to study its national language in our schools. Would you take the deal? Actually, we already have. Starting this fall, US high school students will be able to take an Advanced Placement (AP) course in “Chinese Language and Culture.” Developing the course and its exam cost the College Board, which runs the AP Programme, about $1.4 million. And half of that sum was picked up by — you guessed it — China.

That’s right. The same regime that has brought us public executions, forced labour camps, and Internet censors will soon be funding a language and culture class in a school near you. Given what we know about China’s rulers, it’s fair to ask what’s in it for them. And to answer, we might examine the last time a dictatorial foreign government tried to influence our language instruction. The era was the 1930s, and the nation was Italy. Fascist Italy. About a decade after he seized power, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini began a broad campaign to promote Italian-language instruction in US schools. In a special enticement, Mussolini’s government awarded medals to US high school students for “excellence in the study of Italian.” Textbooks sang the praises of Mussolini’s government. “Fascism has remade Italy,” boasted Andiamo in Italia (“Let’s Go Italy”), a text used in New York public schools. “Italy was a disorderly and disorganised country in which all wanted to talk more loudly without listening to the voice of the ruler. Now this voice which commands is well heard by all and order has been restored as if by a miracle.”

After 1941, when the US declared war on Italy, such propaganda came to a halt. Today, thankfully, Italians are enjoying a small renaissance in American schools. Shortly before the Chinese agreed to fund the Advanced Placement course here, the Italian government pledged $300,000 to establish an AP programme in its own language. But there’s a big difference. The current Italian government is a democracy. That means Italians are free to criticise its actions. Not so with the Chinese. The regime will probably follow Mussolini’s model and try to use the new AP course to play up China’s economic achievements and play down its crimes. So it’s up to the rest of us to monitor the programme. Any school district offering this course should also make its textbooks and lesson plans available in English, so parents and other concerned citizens can read them. Of course, US students need to study non-English languages.

Our problem is especially embarrassing when it comes to Chinese, which is spoken by 1.5 billion people and studied by fewer than 50,000 Americans. So more Americans should take Chinese. Our economy, cultural life, and national security all demand it. But we should study the subject on our own terms, making sure that it reflects our best civic language of freedom, open discussion, and democracy. Now, it’s a tongue that we need to speak. — The Christian Science Monitor