360° Analysis

Confucian Dreams: Confucius Institutes as Viewed by the International Scholar


October 15, 2012 19:30 EDT

Confucius Institutes, which promote Chinese culture abroad, are bolstering China’s soft power.

It has been eight years since the first Confucius Institute was inaugurated in 2004. According to Hanban, the Chinese government department that oversees the Confucius Institute initiative, there are now 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius Classrooms around the world, and its rate of expansions outstrips other countries’ equivalent initiatives such as the British Council or the Goethe Institute. A growing number of overseas scholars have noticed this trend, and are undertaking research in an effort to understand the Confucius Institutes from multiple standpoints.

Falk Hartig of Australia’s Queensland University of Technology has an opinion not uncommon amongst foreign scholars, for he views the Confucius Institutes as a diplomatic tools created by China to enhance the country’s “soft power”. Hartig analyzed the Confucius Institutes in Germany by recording specific actions made by these organizations. He pointed out that the major activities initiated by these institutes are language study groups of all levels of difficulty, as well as various culture workshops such as cultural exhibitions, film festivals, and civil outreach and dialogue. These activities do not involve an excessive amount of ideological propaganda from the Chinese government, but instead focus on cultural exchange to improve China’s international image and profile. Furthermore, Confucius Institutes all over the world tacitly avoid politically sensitive issues, as they are afraid of losing the support of the Chinese government. Given the components of these activities, Confucius Institutes also thus fall into the definition of “Cultural Diplomacy” as outlined by Nicholas G. Carr of the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, which is to enrich the global community by disseminating a country’s cultural assets and accomplishments.

In terms of its organizational structure, Confucius Institutes are not quite similar to perceived equivalents such as Spain’s Cervantes Institute, Germany’s Goethe Institute, the British Council and Alliance française. While those institutes are fully funded and run by their respective governments, Confucius Institutes are administered in three different forms: Solely Chinese management, co-management with local partners, and local management as authorized by the Chinese side. Of these forms, the second iteration is the most common, and both the American scholar Joshua Kurlantzick plus Lai Yihong of University of Nottingham commended co-management with local partners as the most cost-efficient. Renowned international relations expert Joseph Nye has also praised the Confucius Institutes’ capabilities in increasing China’s soft power.

Of course, not all international scholars are in praise of Confucius Institutes. For instance, Ren Zhe of the Slavik Institute of Hokkaido University wrote an article criticizing Nye‘s opinion. He opines that some countries feel threatened by China’s cultural expansion initiative and are hesitant about agreeing to Confucius Institutes; at the same time, because of the lack of qualified language teachers, the qualities of Confucius Institutes’ programs also have much room for improvement. Upon examining his own university, Ren found that most of the Hokkaido University students and faculty interviewed by him are aware of the campus’s Confucius Institute, but are unaware of its exact location and the activities hosted by the institute.

Ren Zhe also claimed that the Confucius Institutes focus on China’s traditional culture at the expense of its contemporary culture. China’s contemporary culture not only encapsulates the more recent generations of Chinese better, it is also easier for foreigners to digest compared to traditional Chinese culture. As a means of comparison, Japanese and Korean traditional cultures are close to China’s, but both countries have their own contemporary cultures which have sparked worldwide cultural trends of different scales. If China wants to spread Chinese culture through its Confucius Institutes, they have to find the common values and universally shared concepts. Only in this way will Chinese culture be broadly accepted.

In fact, aside from its definition of culture and the elements and methods of its cultural outreach, Confucius Institutes have also been targeted for more serious criticism. Some scholars have pointed out that Confucius Institutes are non-profit organizations, but businesses associated with the Hanban have murky relationships with Confucius Institutes. In one case, the leader of a firm with ties to Hanban is also the vice president of Hanban, causing a conflict of interest.

The rapid development of Confucius Institutes has also influenced other countries, especially the nations bordering China. In India, Confucius Institutes are viewed as tools for accomplishing far-reaching strategic objectives. When compared to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Bollywood movies, and the study of Indian languages, the Confucius Institute has a political function not present in its Indian counterparts. From the Indian perspective, Confucius Institute volunteers are the Chinese government’s “civil diplomats”, and are China’s main human resources for acquiring cultural and social influences in these regions. India lags behind China in this aspect of soft power acquisition, and badly needs to catch up.

Institute events and organizational structure aside, some overseas scholars have also tried to construct a relationship between the Confucius Institute and China’s external economic activities. They believe that the Confucius Institutes have enhanced the relations between China and local countries, promoting the sense of intimacy and reducing the cost of communications. Meanwhile, as a platform for information exchange, the Confucius Institute opens more channels into local markets, reducing the cost of business communications and transactions as well. The American scholars Donald Lean, Wu Changxun and Travis Salmi wrote an article for the International Economic and Financial Review, which showed their findings from digital models proving that the Confucius Institutes increased China’s direct external investments from 48% to 118%. Amongst developed countries these figures are not very high, but in developing countries, this figure is 46% to 130%, far outpacing foreign trade growth in general which is merely 4% to 27% in developing countries. However, the economics-oriented research has also raised concerns about the actual functions and possible “by-products” of Confucius Institutes, which is now a hot topic amongst international scholars.

In any case, as Confucius Institutes become one of the most prominent components of China’s image abroad, research into the institutes have become increasingly popular. The speedy construction of Confucius Institutes demands higher standards in research and the ability to monitor fast-moving developments. For the people of China, when it comes to utilizing national resources or one’s cultural heritage, the most important goal is effective cultural and diplomatic outreach. This demands that we should expand our knowledge of the world, and examine and discuss the impact of the Confucius Institutes in a critical and in-depth manner.

Original content by Su Liang of CNPolitics. Translated by Janny F. Wang. Made available to Fair Observer through the generosity of our partner site Dongxi.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.


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