Confucius Institutes expand rapidly as China projects soft power

December 9, 2013 by Amy Qin

On 18 November politicians, diplomats, academics, and university administrators gathered at the University of Tirana in Albania to celebrate the launch of the university’s new Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-backed academic programme whose mission is to promote Chinese language and culture abroad.

Speaking at the launch ceremony, Ye Hao, the Chinese Ambassador to Albania heralded the new Institute as a milestone, a “fresh impetus” in the relations between the two countries. The Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama stressed the governmental and business exchanges that could arise from the collaboration, expressing confidence that the Institute would “help further promote cooperation in [Albania’s] other sectors.”

Compared to circumstances just under a half-century ago, the contrast could not have been more striking. During the late 1960s, the small Eastern European country and Mao-led China had clung to each other as ideological allies after having both fallen out with the Soviet Union and isolated themselves from the rest of the world. But the relationship disintegrated once China changed course and began opening up to the US. In the less than 50 years since, China has discarded many of its ideological anti-capitalistic commitments and grown to become the world’s second largest economy, so integral to the global economy that it passed the US this year to become the world’s largest trading nation.

It is on the basis of this growing economic power that China has gained the confidence necessary to expand its alternative channels of influence – namely, soft power. But this influence cannot be won in the same way that China ‘won’ its economic might. Defined by Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion,” soft power, unlike economic power, cannot be measured, nor is there a magical formula through which it can be gained overnight.

Obtaining soft power requires time –to build trust and to nurture genuine attraction – and it is not always commensurate with economic power. Results from the most recent PewResearch Global Attitudes poll back this up – only 50% of respondents polled around the world had favorable views of China, compared to 63% of the US. “China’s increasing power has not led to more positive [global image] ratings for the People’s Republic,” the report read.

Nonetheless, China has barrelled ahead with its Confucius Institute programme, arguably the country’s most ambitious cultural diplomacy endeavour to date. In less than a decade, 435 Confucius Institutes have been established in 117 countries and regions at a total cost up to 2011 of more than $500m. Interest in Chinese language learning has surged around the world, and in countries like Albania the CIs represent an opportunity to strengthen business relations with China. Demand for CIs is apparently so high that according to the China Daily, as of September 2013, there were another 400 overseas institutions still on the waiting list. Plans are under way to open more than 100 more CIs by 2015.

Despite their apparent popularity, however, the programme has been subject to severe criticism ever since the first Confucius Institute was established in Seoul in 2004. Most concerns stem from the belief that the government-backed CIs amount to what is essentially a foreign government-managed pocket of influence within a domestic university. This widely held belief is true: the CIs are supervised by the Beijing-based Chinese Language Council International, commonly known as Hanban, which is itself governed by a council of high-level party and state officials drawn from various important state ministries and commissions.

As a result, over the years, the CIs have been accused of being “Trojan horses with Chinese characteristics”, vehicles of “hidden messages” aimed at promoting its cultural values, and a front for cultural espionage. Former propaganda chief of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Li Changchun certainly did not help to allay these concerns when he was quoted as saying that CIs were “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

But it is difficult to know whether these criticisms are warranted since, as Marshall Sahlins, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago points out in a recent piece in The Nation, Confucius Institutes are something of a “moving target”.

By “moving target”, Sahlins is referring to the willingness of Chinese officials to negotiate terms of the agreements with universities, particularly if they are seeking out an elite university. Stanford University, for example, not only negotiated a payment of $4m from Hanban – far more than is usually paid to universities – but the dean was also able to push back successfully on the discussion restrictions that Hanban typically insists on – topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military build-up and Chinese elite factionalism.

Still, most of the universities with which Hanban has an agreement lack the reputational leverage to negotiate terms. As a result, these universities often have no choice but to accept the Hanban’s terms as they are presented. “It’s not a huge amount of money, but for some [universities] it could be the difference between having a Chinese studies programme and not having [one],” Terry Russell, acting director of Asian studies at the University of Manitoba, told the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Just this past summer, McMaster University in Canada closed its Confucius Institute after concerns were raised regarding the Institute’s discriminatory hiring practices. Sonia Zhao had come to McMaster to teach at the Institute but was forced to hide her belief in Falun Gong, a banned spiritual movement in China, after signing a contract in China that warned teachers were “not allowed to join illegal organisations such as the Falun Gong.” When revelations such as this become public, they often leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those to whom these soft power efforts are directed, thereby undermining the mission of the programme itself.

For the most part, however, there has been relatively little original reporting or coverage of the Confucius Institutes, which is surprising given the enormous interest in China and specifically its power ambitions. Until now, most of the coverage has been heavily skewed toward the American and Canadian Confucius Institutes.

One point that is often echoed is that the CIs are not comparable to the British Council, Alliance Francaise, Goethe-Institut, and the Cervantes Institute mainly because unlike the CIs, the others are all stand-alone institutions and do not exist as autonomous units within a host school. While this is true, the larger point that many governments, not just the Chinese, fund educational and cultural initiatives as a means of projecting soft power is often missed or downplayed.

Future work on the topic would do well to research and consider the operations and influence of CIs in non-Western countries, particularly in regions such as Hong Kong, which has long chafed against mainland Chinese interference in its education curriculum, and Japan, which continues to host Confucius Institutes despite increasing political hostilities between the two countries.

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