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China aids U.S. school language programs

As economic ties deepen, thousands of students in the United States are learning Mandarin Chinese through a Chinese government program that's intended to improve its image overseas.

The Confucius Institute training teachers from Ireland.

As economic ties deepen, thousands of students in the United States are learning Mandarin Chinese through a Chinese government program that's intended to improve its image overseas. Some critics are concerned that the program is simply propaganda to assuage opposition to China's communist government.

Nearly 300 U.S. schools and 75 universities are receiving assistance to hire instructors to teach Mandarin Chinese courses, ABC News is reporting. The Chinese government's Hanban Confucius Institute provides training and funding to hire language teachers that many budget strapped schools could not otherwise afford.

ABC interviewed administrators at a Macon, Ga., school district where China has ensured that all 25 of its elementary school can participate. The school reviews the curriculum and maintains a presence in the classroom. The U.S State Department has also given the program its blessing as a "cultural exchange." Further support has been expressed by the College Board, the not-for-profit organization that's behind the SATs.

"The United States is committed to strong, sustained support for educational and cultural exchange, including the learning of critical languages. We strongly support people-to-people cooperation in our cultural exchanges," the State Department said in a statement e-mailed to ABC. That was not enough to sway critics.

Some pointed to a video, which has since been scrubbed from a children's section on the Institute's Web site, as evidence of ulterior motives. The video referred to the Korean Was as "the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea." At least one Macon family that ABC interviewed was generally suspicious about the institute's involvement, but that isn't totally surprising. Sinophobia has very deep roots in the United States.

There is no Red Dawn scenario unfolding in Georgia schools. The State Department is emphasizing the importance of cultural and educational exchanges with China, which were happening even before the U.S. established full diplomatic relations with the communist government (mostly Chinese students studying in the U.S.). It is only natural that those exchanges would burgeon as China became a vital trading partner.

China doesn't have to fool anyone - most Americans now have a positive view of U.S. relations with China. Two-thirds of the respondents in a Feb. 2012 Gallup survey consider China to be friendly or an ally. Diplomatic and economic ties are also deepening despite election year rhetoric condemning Chinese trade practices.

In 2010, the State Department established a goal to send at least 100,000 U.S. students to study abroad in China from 2010-2014, and Americans teaching English in China is not uncommon. The U.S. also finances rural development in China through the Peace Corp. and various National Institutes for Health grants.

China's involvement in U.S. classrooms is new to us, but it's not unprecedented, and may create future economic opportunities. No one is going to forget China's human rights abuses from learning its language. It's reasonable to think of the Institute as a Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Peace Corp.

(image credit: Confucious Institute)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com