By Jacob Adelman
The Associated Press
HACIENDA HEIGHTS, Calif. (AP) — Bobby Fraker is taking a stand against what she perceives to be a sinister threat from across the Pacific, right here in her suburban Southern California community of tree-lined streets and stucco homes.
At a recent school board meeting, Fraker and a dozen or more older, mostly white opponents of a Chinese government program that will fund a middle school language class delivered fist-shaking denunciations.
“These children have young brains that are very malleable and they can be indoctrinated with things that America would not like,” Fraker implored board members, who approved the plan in January.
Communities across the United States, from Smithfield, R.I., to Medford, Ore., have welcomed the so-called Confucius Classroom grants from the Chinese government, like the one proposed for Cedarlane Middle School.
But Confucius is not going down smoothly in Hacienda Heights, a middle-class town east of downtown Los Angeles with a history of racial tensions between longtime residents and relatively recent Chinese newcomers. Ethnic Chinese comprise the majority of the school board.
The Cedarlane student body, meanwhile, is overwhelmingly Hispanic, with three out of every five students at the school qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, a poverty indicator, according to state data.
The dust-up may portend trouble for China’s efforts to expand its cultural clout by bankrolling language programs in primary and secondary schools across the United States.
“I’m sure this will become a standard dispute,” said University of Southern California public policy professor Nicholas Cull, who tracks China’s efforts to shape its image abroad through programs like Confucius Classrooms. “People in America are very suspicious of ideas from the outside.”
Chen Zhunmin, who directs the Chinese consulate’s education office in Los Angeles, insisted the program has nothing to do with communism, which some local critics contend. He said Confucius Classroom and other programs were created to address misunderstandings about his country.
“I feel that the concerns of the neighbors are mainly caused by lack of understanding of Chinese history and culture,” he wrote in an e-mail.
There are 60 Confucius Classroom and university-level Confucius Institute programs in the United States, according to the website of China’s language-teaching agency, the Hanban. Each is administered through a patchwork of educational organizations and universities that have deals with the agency.
The New York-based Asia Society plans to help set up another 80 Confucius Classrooms over the next two years. An additional 45 are separately planned in North Carolina alone.
The expansion could expose existing cultural and political fault lines, as it has in Hacienda Heights, a community that has undergone demographic change in recent decades.
In 1970, Hacienda Heights was less than 2 percent Asian and almost entirely white, according to state figures. By 2008, after decades of Chinese immigration into the region, Asians made up more than a third of the population, the same portion as the city’s non-Hispanic whites.
The new ethnic and racial makeup has provided a backdrop for a spate of community disputes.
Some neighbors opposed construction of a massive Buddhist temple complex on a city hillside in the late 1980s to serve the growing Asian community in the San Gabriel Valley. Opponents feared animals would be sacrificed on the site and temple-goers would disturb the peace by banging gongs.
Racial tensions played a role in a failed 2003 ballot campaign to have the unincorporated part of Los Angeles County recognized as a city, with opponents whispering that an incorporated Hacienda Heights would be dominated by Asian Americans.
The dispute over the Confucius Classroom program appears to be another clash.
“China already owns and changed most of the shopping centers in Hacienda Heights,” resident Sharon Pluth wrote in a letter to the town’s closest newspaper, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “Do we really want them to change our kids’ minds, too?”
Under the deal with the Hanban, the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District is receiving $30,000 a year for language and culture programs at Cedarlane school, along with some 1,000 textbooks, CDs, and other educational materials.
The city originally planned to accept an offer to have the Chinese government place a teaching assistant in Cedarlane and pay his or her salary, an overture that stoked strong resistance.
An editorial by the Tribune called the plan “tantamount to asking Hugo Chavez to send his cadres to teach little American kids economics.”
School board member Norman Hsu said it wasn’t worth pushing the issue, since, without California credentials, the teacher would not have been permitted to operate as a full-fledged instructor anyway.
“Why do we need to pour oil in the fire?” he said.
Hsu said the district accepted the Chinese government’s offer because it knew that money for a needed expansion of its language program at Cedarlane would not be forthcoming from the cash-strapped state government.
But opponents, who have been attending school board meetings with signs bearing such slogans as “America, Not Confucius,” say they’ll keep pushing the district to abandon the program completely.
They also say they’ll seek to unseat the four members of the five-person board that voted in January to accept Hanban’s offer.
Teresa Macias, one of those who voiced concerns at a recent board meeting, insisted her objections were not rooted in race.
Like other critics, Macias said she has no children in the school system, but feels the need to protect the community’s youth from communist propaganda that could be hidden in textbook passages unreadable to non-Chinese speakers.
She said she’s also concerned about the program’s identification with Confucius and his 2,500-year-old philosophy.
“When you Google it, it comes up as a religion,” she said. “It just seems wrong on so many levels.”
Chen, from the Chinese consulate, dismissed that concern.
“It is a well-known fact that Confucius is basically a philosopher and educator, not a religious figure,” he wrote.
Cecile Cowan, whose daughter is about to attend Cedarlane, understands critics’ concerns, but plans to review the Confucius teaching materials with an open mind. She’d like for her daughter to learn an important skill.
“I believe the whole idea behind it was sort of bringing our cultures together and exposing children to languages,” she said. “It only adds to their intelligence and their marketability as they get older.”
Jane Shults, a Cedarlane history teacher, supports the program on her campus because she can use the free texts to teach about ancient China, as mandated by the state.
“The community has changed. It could be that it’s a way of protesting that,” she said. “It’s jingoistic, it’s xenophobic, it’s not overly rational, and it’s really shades of McCarthyism all over again.” ♦