By Annie Y. Liu .

The headline “Confucius Institute teachers required to leave the US before deadline” appeared as a top Chinese news item last week sparking internet debates. The issue originated from a directive issued by the US Department of State on May 17th as the guidelines towards American universities which have developed partnerships with Confucius Institutes (CI).

CI teachers who hold J-1 visas under professor (or scholar) categories must not teach at US primary and secondary schools (K-12), as the latter require teacher category visa holders. All CI staff teaching at any US K-12 schools must therefore leave the country by the end of June. Secondly, current and future US CIs must obtain US accreditation before operating any education programmes.

Despite US State Department spokeswoman Vitoria Nuland insisting that this is purely a visa regulation issue, critics have still made the association with Beijing’s 100 day campaign to expel foreigners with incorrect visas. The two events give the impression that visa regulation is not only a tool to secure national security, but also a way to counteract outside countries’ cultural penetration.

The foreign relations committee of the US Senate has expressed concerns about the fast expansion of CIs in the US in the past decade and a report was submitted for discussion in congress during February 2011. From a single CI in the University of Maryland established 2004, more than 70 had been set up by this time. In strong contrast, the US is operating only 5 centres in China of similar function. With 10 times more Chinese students studying in the US than the reverse and an unsatisfactory 2010 Shanghai World Expo performance, congressmen have many reasons to worry about what they described as “another [US] deficit” in the public diplomacy competition with China.

It is not the expansion of CIs in the US per se, but the unbalanced presence of the cultural agencies that proxy for public diplomacy that have caused anxiety. Criticism of China for utilizing the open system of the US to promote its profile, while obstructing similar US efforts is understandable. However, a tit-for-tat approach is unwise if the US desires to win this battle. On the contrary, the US can lose moral high ground by lowering the high standard it has set for international communities as a watchdog for open society and free markets.

I prefer to regard the visa action of the US State Department as a tactic to press the Chinese government to further open up its education and culture market, rather than it being a real block to CIs in the US. Nobody can deny that CIs contribute to fostering the bilingual workforce demanded increasingly by the US, but which the government fails to provide training for. This speculation seems not unwarranted considering a week later, the US State Department has retreated from its original stance by declaring that 1) accreditation will not be required if the CIs are partnered with accredited American universities, and 2) the department is “going to do its best to fix this (visa problem) so that nobody has to leave (the US)”.

Despite this temporary success, what should alarm China is that financial inputs are a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition for successful public diplomacy, which not only takes the efforts of generations, but essentially requires conquest over the moral high ground on the world stage.        

Annie Y. Liu is the Marie Curie Fellow of the China Policy Institute, theUniversityofNottingham.


AGE OF THE INTERNET, prepared by Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, February 15, 2011. Accessed from:

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors


  1. This is a nice piece. The old Chinese saying is ‘the real wish of a drunken man is not wine’.

  2. I find this an interesting piece, however, I do believe it implies that old Chinese paranoia and wrong-thinking that others are seeking confrontation in order to make China some kind of victim when they are not and it is often the other way around. In the case you have described, it sounds not unreasonable for the American government to clamp down on teachers who are teaching in primary and secondary schools without the proper qualifications, license or, importantly, visa. I wish to work in a secondary or primary school, I cannot do this, even with seminar instruction experience at PG and UG level and a Higher Education Teaching qualification on the way. I would need to obtain the proper license to do so, by taking a PGCE. This is a rule that is pretty much set in stone. It is not an issue of diplomacy, but of safeguarding. It is also an issue of fairness. There is no logical, valid or fair reason to allow a Chinese national privileged status in the US, UK or anywhere outside of China. That CPIs appear to have taken advantage of the generosity of other governments which have supported and empowered CPIs seems rather disgraceful if it is in disregard for the rules and places local residents at a disadvantage due to circumvention of the required standards.

    1. Thanks to both of you for the comments. I think we need to look further into the situation before judging on the fairness of the rules. If the CI teachers were offering the mandarine classes in the primary and high schools for free, then I didn’t see this volunteering efforts would cause any unfairness to anybody else, not to mention they took any advantage from it. Also if teaching at the primary schools is allowed for the native university staff, then it seems unfair to limit the Chinese teachers to do the same job under the excuse of visa regulation. The problem is that the CIs have been operating in the US for nearly one decade, why only till now did the US State Department notice and tackle this so called mess up of the visa categories?

      1. Hi Annie, I agree with you completely. My point is though, that in the UK (I do not know about US), it is NOT alright for university staff to teach in primary or secondary schools at all, everybody has to abide by the same rules. Therefore it would be unreasonable to expect local citizens (as represented by the government) to accept Chinese university CI staff to work in schools when it would be against the rules of the land for native or local staff to do the same. Respectfully, that it possibly is in part a safeguarding issue has been submitted in my above comment, whether voluntary or paid teaching. The issue of fairness is another and separate matter. It was not clear that the efforts were voluntary from the article. If not voluntary, the advantage is monetary, if voluntary, the advantage is the potential spread of the political plague that is communism (as Americans might view it). The issue of visas in China seems a very separate matter from the visa issue in US as well. Most of us in Chinese Studies will know the drunken so-called “British” abuser video from Beijing and even the Canadian (conveniently another commonwealth citizen) who has had enough of a requirement for him to abide by small rules at a ticket office in China, when China seems to struggle so much with the bigger set of rules (i.e. a well developed legal system), not forgetting of course the Cellist who put his feet up on a train- how dreadful for him to have been rude in China. The Chinese government should be commended for deciding to follow its own rules on visa requirements more stringently. Likewise though, so should the US government for requiring all persons (including Chinese) to adhere to the rule of law. If not now, when?

    2. I take it, Sam, that reference to the ‘CPIs’ in your comment refers to ‘CIs’.
      Steve Tsang

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