This article originally appeared on The Exchange.
China’s Confucius Institutes are multiplying across each region of the globe. Don’t fret though. It’s for the best.
On November 21, 2004, the first Confucius Institute opened its doors in Seoul, South Korea. The placement was by design, like every aspect of this public diplomacy endeavor by an increasingly confident Chinese government. The Korean peninsula, for example, has a long history of adhering to the Confucian system of thought, society and governance. Even more symbolically, before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, Korea was a part of China’s traditional cultural empire. In fact, it was the last part to fall. As it often does, the Chinese government was looking back as a means of presenting its new forward momentum. It considered the Seoul Confucius Institute as its first step back, as Don Starr put it, into the “first-world club after a century of semi-colonial status and 50 years of third world membership.” China was sending a message to the world that it had returned as a major power.
In the years since, China’s economy grew from being the fifth largest in the world to now just trailing the U.S., a temporary position if projections are to be believed. This rapid rise has been perceived as a threat to much of the world despite overtures of “peace and development” and “a harmonious world” by Chinese leaders, including Hu Jintao, the President of the People’s Republic of China from 2003 to 2013. As they pursue increasingly ambitious roles in regional leadership and international institution-building as well as further modernization and assimilation into the global community, the Chinese government is turning to the exploitation of traditional strategic culture as a means of soft power. The Confucius Institute, modeled after similar institutions like France’s Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe-Institut, is a channel for spreading that message.
According to the official website, the Confucius Institute model—originally designed, managed and funded by the Chinese government—was established to serve a number of objectives: to develop Chinese language courses for various social sectors; to train Chinese language instructors for local institutions and provide them with Chinese language resources; to establish local facilities for the holding of HSK exams (the official Chinese proficiency test) and for the administration of procedures for the Chinese language teacher certification; to provide information and consulting services concerning Chinese education, culture, economy, and society; and to promote research about contemporary China.
The expansion of Confucius Institutes has run parallel to the growth of China’s economy and global prestige. There are now—as of July 2013—327 Confucius Institutes in more than 90 countries and regions. Administering the Confucius Institutes is the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Guojia Hanyu Guoji Tuiguang Lingdao Xiaozu Bangongshi), known by its abbreviation, Hanban. It is a non-profit public organization that is governed by a group whose members derive from state ministries, including the State Council, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Culture. This affiliation to the Chinese government leaves the Confucius Institutes open to criticism. Confucius Institutes established with the joint venture model—a partnership between Hanban, a Chinese university and a foreign university—are especially prone to concerns about academic freedom. If topics sensitive to the Chinese government—Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military, Falun Gong—were raised in the Confucius Institute on the University of Kentucky’s campus, for example, would the students and teachers be allowed to engage?
These concerns were fully vocalized in the testimony of Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in 2012:
Confucius Institutes are described as non-profit public institutions aligned with the government of the People’s Republic of China whose purpose is to promote Chinese language and culture, as well as facilitate cultural exchanges. This seemingly benign purpose leaves out a number of purposes both salient and sinister, namely, sanitizing China’s image abroad, enhancing its “soft power” globally, and creating a new generation of China watchers who well-disposed towards the Communist dictatorship.
I believe, despite such alarmist rhetoric, that the Confucius Institute system has the potential to be a very effective public diplomacy endeavor for China. However, there are steps that Hanban needs to take to ensure that Confucius Institutes are considered credible around the world.
First, Hanban needs to separate itself and the Confucius Institute organization from the Chinese government further, even if it already promotes itself as “a non-governmental and non-profit organization affiliated to the Ministry of Education of China.” This new entity could be funded by Chinese universities, membership fees, profits from the sale of official textbooks and other materials, and government education grants that are applied for through official, unbiased channels. The more distance Hanban can put between itself and the Chinese government the better. While not all stigma will immediately disappear, it will dispel the notion that the Chinese government is using individual Confucius Institute campuses as a way to promote the demonized western idea of propaganda, to conduct espionage activities, and to censor sensitive topics. Non-Chinese universities will be less hesitant to work directly with Chinese universities, increasing the latter’s stature in the global education system, while Mandarin and Chinese culture will be able to be promoted and dispersed without the ball-and-chain of past government action.
Take for example the English as a Second Language (ESL) industry in East Asia. There are tens of thousands of ESL schools scattered around the region. The vast majority are independent of any national government and considerable money-makers. When parents sign their kids up to take ESL classes, they do not consider this to be an activity of American propaganda, but a means of preparing their children for a globalized world. However, a majority of ESL teachers in East Asia come from the United States. In addition, English today conjures images of the United States and the American dream. So, in effect, kids taking ESL courses are often being heavily exposed to American ideas and culture as well as the American dialect of English. It is American public diplomacy free of cost to the American government. (Replace the American teacher with a British or Australian or Indian teacher, and the same remains true for the respective government.)
An independent Confucius Institute organization can work to lay the foundation for a Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) industry. The Chinese government would not have control over the ideology of the industry—certainly a tough pill to swallow—but it will be much more effective Chinese public diplomacy than anything the Chinese government sponsored. More people will potentially become interested in Mandarin and Chinese culture, which in turn will inspire them to travel to and study in China.
More Confucius Institutes in foreign countries, both independent and partnered with universities, benefit the host countries as well. Administrators and teachers will gain first-hand experience of working and living in the host country. They, in turn, will relay positive experiences back to their personal networks in China. Confucius Institutes, if allowed to be independent in administration and content, can be two-way symmetrical communication, the ultimate goal of public diplomacy.
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vincentraal/5559491159/