The term "political correctness" originated as a legal concept in 19th century America, gradually finding its way into expressions of race, class and gender. The term has turned into a value that promotes tolerance and avoids discrimination. However, its meaning has become more inclusive.
It is considered "politically incorrect" as long as any act does not cater to mainstream public opinion. Meanwhile, with the great cultural influence of the US, "political correctness" has spread across borders to enter other Western societies. For example, being against Russia is considered "political correctness" in many Western countries. In order to be politically correct, the US Embassy in China even criticized the Communist Party of China on Chinese social media network Weibo. Suddenly, "political correctness" has become a tool for American media to silence differing opinions.
Confucius Institute is pushed to the forefront in China-US economic relations. In the wake of the trade war, attacking Confucius Institutes reflects a mind-set of "political correctness" embedded in US society. Recently, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released two reports on Confucius Institutes. Some US media outlets quickly followed up. The expansion of China's soft power finds frequent mention in American and European media reports on Confucius Institutes, while little is said about the promotion of Goethe Institute by Germany and Cervantes Institute by Spain.
There are 96 Confucius Institutes in the US and more than 500 Confucius Institutes and 1,000 Confucius classrooms around the world. Chinese has become the second most-learned foreign language in the US, and the number of American primary and secondary school students studying Putonghua is growing rapidly. Amid the trade conflict, the undue spotlight on Confucius Institutes reflects not only the US' worries on Chinese economic development but also concerns for its own "cultural security."
"Political correctness" has combined with the "China threat theory." As China develops, the "China threat theory" has taken center stage in the West. Along with the improvement of China's soft power, skepticism about Chinese cultural and technological development mirrors the static mind-set of "political correctness." "Charm offensive," "sharp power" and "cultural spy" have become much-paraded words. US media has framed Confucius Institutes in the backdrop of the "China threat." The US media criticized Confucius Institutes for catering to mainstream American values. This seems paradoxical. Daily Telegraph of the UK pointed that "China threat is vastly overstated." Miami University in the US said in a news article, "This was a politically-motivated probe and it continues to perpetuate a narrative of 'us vs. them' instead of one about bridging cultural divides."
Objectiveness and balance are absent, methods and subjects are vague in American media reports on Confucius Institutes. The PSI report and the GAO report came to contradictory conclusions on issues like autonomy and academic freedom of Confucius Institutes. The GAO report put paid to conclusions in the PSI report, which said Confucius Institutes compromised academic freedom of US universities and lacked transparency. The PSI report also said that Confucius Institutes were engaged in espionage and threatened US national security, without any evidence. Although US media claimed objectivity, they selected negative aspect in the reports. In fact, the GAO report said that cooperation with Chinese universities should continue.
Whether the US media are liberal or conservative, their international reports follow the "America First" principle rather than their self-professed professionalism. In case of Confucius Institutes, the US media generated discourse that met US national interests. The GAO report showed that there was no evidence that staff of Confucius Institutes were involved in espionage, while the media call Confucius Institute a "cultural spy." The report showed concern over eroding academic freedom, while the media accused Confucius Institutes of influencing US public opinion and even seeking "ideological colonization."
"Spiral of silence" hits cultural communication and convergence. The term "spiral of silence" means that people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are against the majority view on a subject. As the opinion finds more support among the majority, the minority continues to be threatened and sinks deeper into silence. Confucius Institutes are questioned worldwide because of their official affiliation. However, these doubts mainly come from the elite opinion in the US and European countries. For the public in the international community, especially Chinese language learners, Confucius Institutes bring opportunities and cultural exchanges. This is precisely the reason why on the one hand Confucius Institutes have been closed in some countries, while on the other many countries are waiting to cooperate with Chinese universities.
There were many reasons to explain why the US media chose only negative information for reporting: National interest, communication concerns and cross-culture barriers all contributed to the practice. Just as American editors favor news of disasters, wars, and disease when reporting on Africa, positive information on Confucius Institutes is bound to be filtered out and suppressed.
The management of Confucius Institutes needs improvement, but biased public opinion is detrimental to cultural communication. Political correctness was originally intended to prevent cultural clashes caused by discriminatory language, but it has gone to the extreme in recent years. US domestic issues have suffered because of political correctness. In the US media's coverage on Confucius Institutes, the content selection is hijacked by American mainstream public opinion and values. Other views are difficult to voice under the "spiral of silence" effect. The author is a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Shanghai International Studies University. [email protected]