CITY HALL observers will remember a dust-up back in 2008 involving then-mayor Otis Johnson.
Compared to the political hurricanes that battered Johnson in the years that followed, it now seems like a summer breeze. But Johnson’s trip to China, announced without input or discussion from the full council, heralded the unraveling of the mayor’s 9-0 political unity.
Six years and a new mayor later, the results of that trip went largely unnoticed.
Last month, with Johnson and his successor in attendance, Savannah officially joined about 80 cities nationwide and six in Georgia to host a Confucius Institute. The program links Savannah with Jiujiang, a river port city of about 600,000 people in southeastern China.
Our Confucius Institute is located at Savannah State and co-directed by Emmanuel Naniuzeyi (pronounced NAN-you-zay) at the university’s Center for International Education.
“We have students who have never been outside the state of Georgia,” Naniuzeyi says. “So we are changing this. We are teaching our students that it’s important to understand that the job market extends beyond the states.”
I’ve read about Confucius Institutes since they began about ten years ago. And I knew some things about them already.
They teach Chinese language. They’re funded by the Chinese government. They’re seen as paths to international careers.
But other things were new to me, including the fact that they’re not just for students. Next spring, any member of the community can enroll in free Mandarin courses.
“If there will be a large number of people interested, we will be increasing the number of instructors to make sure that we serve a large segment of the population,” Naniuzeyi says. “And we will also include our sister institutions, Armstrong and Georgia Southern.”
I also didn’t know that they have a business component.
“We will be inviting U.S. citizens who do business in China to come to share their experiences with members of the business community,” Naniuzeyi says. “And maybe this will increase the number of U.S. citizens going to China to do business.”
Any business can participate in these workshops. Art exhibits and cultural performances round out the program’s public components.
(There’s a sublime exhibit up this month in the Kennedy Social Sciences Building featuring the work of Taiwan-born former Savannah resident Ching Ma, whose paintings and calligraphy have graced many venues here. She relocated to Atlanta a few years ago.)
But it’s that Chinese government part that has a lot of people spilling their pearl milk tea.
You might be aware that educational institutions in Toronto, Chicago and Pennsylvania have ended their relationships with the Confucius Institute. Officials complain of books with funny maps showing Taiwan part of China and teachers with funny ways of declaring “nothing to see here” when asked about human rights.
Naniuzeyi says he visited other Confucius Institutes and says his fears are assuaged.
“Whenever we have any department at Savannah State that wants to organize a conference on issues facing China, we will do it,” Naniuzeyi says. “The Confucius Institute will not stop us from doing what we have to do to expose our students to the knowledge that they need.”
Atlanta’s Emory University has a Confucius Institute and also regularly hosts Tibet’s exiled Dalai Lama as a “Presidential Distinguished Professor.”
Texas A&M University has a Confucius Institute and also has hosted academic forums on challenging topics, including Tianamen Square.
And Naniuzeyi himself is publishing an academic paper and spoke to me at length about China’s economic colonization of his native Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The Confucius Institute is a platform that promotes communication among people,” Naniuzeyi says. “We believe that through communication, exchange of goods and mutual understanding of culture, we can promote peace.”
Communication among people? City Council, hello!