Matthew Wappett is the co-director of the University of Idaho Confucius Institute, a Chinese government program that aims to teach Americans about Chinese language and culture.
Wappett, a native of Fairbanks, Ala., learned Mandarin on an LDS mission to Taiwan and later earned a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s in education and a doctorate in special education. He was hired at the University of Idaho in 2006 to be the interdisciplinary training director at the Center on Disabilities and Human Development, and eventually became associate director there before moving to the Confucius Institute in 2014.
Based in Beijing, the Confucius Institute is often described by supporters as similar to language and culture programs such as the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institutes of Germany. But the Confucius Institute, which has found a home at several dozen U.S. universities including the University of Idaho, maintains some control over the courses and content provided by its sister institutions in the United States, and Wappett’s co-director, who hails from the South China University of Technology, was supplied by the Confucius Institute in China.
That means Wappett often faces questions from other professors, from students, and from others in the community about the institute’s academic freedom, and about how the institute addresses China’s record on human rights and free speech. The Idaho Business Review spent some time with Wappett learning about the institute and its role in Idaho. The conversation has been edited for length and content.
Why familiarize Americans with Chinese culture?
Before the 1900 anti-Chinese laws, a quarter of Idaho’s population was Chinese. The Chinese have been in the U.S. for 150 years or longer in some cases, and yet nobody really understands Chinese language and culture outside of Panda Express. Even today, when I talk to people, China seems so foreign to them. Attitudes are changing; it’s not a negative foreign. People are more positive.
In the 1990s, China opened its doors and you could get visas and their economy started to grow, and over the past 20 years China has clearly become the second-largest economy. Most major U.S. businesses have some manufacturing in China. The Chinese and U.S. economies have become so intertwined that it’s important we understand China.
The Chinese understand that their culture and the way things are done there have been so mysterious to the rest of the world that they need to reach out.
There is an economic benefit, and there is a hope this will lead to stability. If there is going to be a major conflict in the next 10 years it’s going to be between U.S. and China. Providing the understanding that we do have things in common avoids conflict and the economic instability that would affect both sides.
Who pays for the institute?
The funding comes from a group in China called Han Ban that is affiliated with the education ministry. It’s an odd entity, a nonprofit arm in China, also very much tied to the education ministry, ostensibly an offshoot of the government. It’s their job to oversee the Confucius Institute, and provide training, funding, and oversight. The faculty comes from our partner institution, the South China Institute of Technology.
What is your role?
We offer classes in understanding Chinese culture. Understanding Chinese culture is central to doing business in China, and there is also Chinese business culture, which we’re in the process of doing coursework and outreach for. We’re also coordinating cultural events, and working with community organizations to figure out if we could provide technical assistance around work in China and cultural competence.
Idaho is one of the few states that does not have a really strong foreign language infrastructure. Over the past year I’ve realized Idaho is the only state that does not have a Chinese language major at one of its higher education institutions; there’s a big gap here. Chinese and Arabic are the fastest-growing languages in the U.S. in terms of people studying them. It’s where the highest demand is.
We’re also trying to put together an economic delegation of Chinese businessmen to come to Boise, provide opportunities for Idaho businesses to come and talk with them. The governor takes over economic delegations to China all the time; we see our role as being able to bring over delegations from China to see what Boise has to offer.
China is our second-largest trading partner, outside of Canada.
What is Chinese business culture?
In the U.S., when we do business, I can go to a boardroom, and it’s a formal process. Chinese business culture requires that you invest a little bit of time in terms of building a relationship before you can enter into a contract.
They have to trust you before they can commit. So, whereas a contract would be signed in a boardroom in the U.S., contracts are signed over drinks and dinner in China, and it’s a lot more informal.
You don’t do a big ask at dinner. To us it looks informal, and in a Chinese setting that’s the expected structure. It’s a little bit opposite, and requires us to think a little differently. It also requires a lot of effort and a certain amount of social skill, which doesn’t come naturally sometimes.
In the U.S. we like to get things done very quickly, and sometimes to get these sort of things done in China requires an investment of time and effort, not just email time. Email is not a great way to do business with China. Face time is the most important thing to them and you don’t build a relationship up over email.
What can you teach people about traveling to China for work?
The unspoken rules, the etiquette, the how do you talk and negotiate. When you walk into a room, where do you sit? In the U.S., you just kind of sit wherever; in China there is assigned seating based on rank and you don’t know that, so you have to wait to be told where to sit.
When do you talk, when do you not talk? There’s this formal aspect to it. There are certain things that you do and don’t do … people are going to serve you food and you need to eat the food served to you. It’s a way of showing a relationship.
Does your institute have academic freedom?
We determine the curriculum, we determine the programs we have, we invite the speakers … the only academic freedom that is maybe constrained is we’re not going to have a political forum. It’s about Chinese culture and language and history; there’s a big focus on avoiding politics.
The Confucius Institute is funded through China, and they are pushing a certain version of Chinese-ness, but as I’ve learned, each Confucius Institute has the ability to shape and mold its own programs, and so we’ve done a lot of focusing on the heritage populations here in Idaho, and trying to get people to realize there was a long connection. Last spring we had a whole series of four lectures on the history of the Chinese in Idaho.
What about China and its human rights problems and lack of free press?
It’s a communist country. There is central control, and we look at that and say, “how terrible,” but the funny thing is that most communist regimes have fallen. China continues to thrive because that central authoritarian government structure is traditionally what China has had with its emperors and everything else. A large bureaucracy with a strong head of state is what the imperial system was. So there were these years of upheaval, the fall of the Ching dynasty in 1914, up through the Cultural Revolution, but it’s kind of gone back, though now it’s the communist party.
So it’s a uniquely Chinese communism that is just the later reflection of the old imperial system. They do have limits on freedoms. And how do I square that circle?
The way I approach it with my students and others, is it’s a cultural difference and I think over time we’ve seen China slowly move toward a more global standard, I guess. We have seen changes in terms of economic policy over the last 20 years. I think part of it, though, is there’s a sense of nervousness around controlling that many people.
By shutting them out and saying (and I get this a lot at the university) “China has a terrible human rights record, and we’re not going to work with them,” you’re not going to change it if you isolate them and refuse to engage in dialogue.
In order to make an attempt we’ve got to be engaging, having these difficult conversations. We may not agree at the outset.
Is part of your job to have those difficult conversations?
My faculty don’t have difficult conversations. That’s one of the challenges. I hear a lot from students and faculty: “We want to talk about Tiananmen Square.” We can’t have people teaching here unless they are willing to talk about human rights issues in China. But the honest truth is most of my Chinese faculty don’t know about it. It is absent from Chinese history, so they don’t learn about it. So, a lot of times they come over here and hear about some of these things, and it’s news to them. Or they’ve only heard a rumor.
But there’s no official history about Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Falun Gong, so it’s not fair to expect my Chinese faculty to be able to engage in those conversations because they have no knowledge.
But I am happy to engage in those conversations, to provide that bridge. I am teaching a class now on Asian philosophy, talking about how does Asian philosophy factor into the Chinese world view? In Confucianism – and largely Chinese culture is based on Confucian values, where harmony and respect of elders is the highest virtue – you won’t have people protesting in the street.
Whereas here in the U.S., the highest virtue is to question authority almost.
What about the concept of a free press? Do you get a chance to tell your Chinese faculty about this?
We have had conversations with our school of journalism and the issue of free press has come up, but my Chinese faculty don’t see it as a problem; they say it’s the Chinese way.
It goes back to those Confucian values – anything that might upset the social order, that might cause tension, conflict, is seen as not ideal.
The Chinese government is really struggling to control social media. They don’t have Facebook; they have their own social media apps, and people are using those as platforms for protest and dissent. They do get monitored and taken down, and people are able to get things up, from a day to a week before they are taken down. People are experimenting with the boundaries, and the government is starting to realize it’s getting harder and harder to control this.
China is trying to control it in very traditional ways but I think the cracks are showing.
How will you know when you’re succeeding?
Right now, I’m counting it as how many students do I have learning Chinese? Last year we had about 230, and this year we figure we’ll have close to 500 in the state, including university students, too.
What is the cost to U of I?
A one-to-one match. Whatever the U of I puts up is matched by the Hanban in China, and then on top of that, our partner institution, South China Institute of Technology, sends personnel. When I started we had just one Chinese teacher, then three more came over, and this year we have 11 Chinese teachers from South China University of Technology. So we get the funding from Beijing … and teachers from southern China. Honestly, China puts in a lot more than the U.S.