Editor’s note for Thursday, August 13, 2020

A note from the editor of today's SupChina Access newsletter.

My thoughts today:

The U.S. State Department today designated the American headquarters of the Confucius Institutes as a “foreign mission.” The designation does not really mean much in the short term — it does not force any closures or ban anything. But in the long term, the “foreign mission” label will make American institutions think very carefully about retaining their Confucius Institutes. And it’s hard to imagine any U.S. school agreeing to open a new Confucius Institute in the current climate.

The designation is understandable: Confucius Institutes have a political purpose: They exist, in the words of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, to “tell China’s story well.” Many observers — especially hawkish Americans — will cheer the State Department action.

But there is a downside. Most Confucius Institutes operate at public schools and universities that simply do not have the budget to run Chinese-language departments on their own. Without the Chinese-government-funded program, those departments will close. When they close, they will not be replaced. Fewer Americans will learn Chinese.

This is a problem for America. Even those who may be on the hawkish side say that a lack of Chinese language skills is literally a danger to U.S. security. In an article on the “unprecedented” threat from Chinese espionage, Washington, D.C.-based radio station WTOP News notes:

There is an adage in Western intelligence circles: “Mandarin is the first level of encryption.”

That saying, according to former Navy Seal Mike Janke, co-founder of Silent Circle, which built the super-secure Blackphone, is “one of the reasons the Chinese are able to get away with stuff they do in the West.”

Janke said a key part of Beijing’s success in targeting the West is its firewall within China. But another simple but effective weapon is, “Mandarin, because it is not spoken in the West and our computers don’t correlate it correctly.”

U.S. government officials said Beijing uses every possible resource at its disposal, including the language difficulty, to pursue its agenda.

Our word of the day is ShanghaiPRIDE (上海骄傲节 shànghǎi jiāo’ào jié — literally, “Shanghai proud festival”).

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief