Soft Power and the Confucius Institute

From the opening ceremony of the 5th Annual Confucius Institute Conference in Beijing last week.

Back in 2006 Joshua Kurlantzick wrote a book called Charm Offensive. It detailed China’s growing influence, not as an economic or military actor, but as a cultural and diplomatic force. His point was mostly about diplomacy, pointing to African aid, Latin American investments, and treaties like ASEAN, but it holds in a broader cultural sense too.

That China goes to great lengths to wine, dine and woo is no secret, just look at the Olympics. This year’s Shanghai Expo and Guangzhou Asian Games are other textbook examples. But aside from glitzy spectacles China has been going full bore with a more long lasting approach to winning hearts and minds:  Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institutes are Chinese culture and language centers set up in foreign countries, usually based on a University campus. For the most part they simply offer language classes and activities. You know, a place to go make dumplings and practice calligraphy while learning grammar. Pretty basic stuff.

The remarkable thing is how fast they’ve sprung up. The first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul in 2004; today there are 320 Confucius Institutes in 96 countries. That’s a rate of almost 1 opening a week for the last 7 years, and they’re behind schedule. The plan was to have completed 500 by 2010.

That’s a big push, and it raises the question: why? The Chinese government line is that it’s an attempt to promote exchange and understanding. A noble goal certainly, but of course whenever a country known for repressing freedom starts to export it’s ideas people get nervous. In Japan, for example, the public university system declined to participate, confining Confucius Institutes there to private colleges. Institutes in India also encountered resistance.

In the US the fuss has been over academic integrity. That might be why of the 60-ish institutes in the states most are not hosted at big name universities. Perhaps this quote from a former director of the University Pennsylvania’s East Asian Studies Center sums it up, “we didn’t want them meddling in our curriculum, particularly.”

However, most signs suggest the fears, in this case, are unwarranted. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sadly members only) found that there was little sign of government meddling in the affairs of the institutes. Then of course there is the fact that the institutes only teach language classes, not history or politics.

But the fear still exists that the centers will be used as a political tool, and there are a few warning signs. A Confucius Institute in Israel was accused of taking down an art exhibit critical of China’s Tibet policy at the urging of the Chinese Embassy.

Personally, I’d guess the institutes are exactly what they purport to be, places to learn about China. If they have a fault it’s that they probably present a Disney version of China—traditional outfits, tea, watercolor paintings and all. If anything, that kind of whitewash attitude toward culture will repel not entice people.

But concerns about political correctness miss the point. What is most important is simply that people are coming into contact with China in their daily lives. People don’t need to be brainwashed into believing the party line for China to gain influence in the world, they just need to learn Chinese.

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2 Responses to Soft Power and the Confucius Institute

  1. eric says:

    I have no personal experience with any Confucious Institute, but I consider their proliferation a positive development, all in all. Perhaps a large part of the problem with US-Sino relations not even miscommunication, but non-communication. You have to start somewhere. The US already has, literally, its own Disney institutes…

  2. Pingback: Hu Visited Who? | China Experiment

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