China’s “soft power” initiatives
A little more than a decade ago China began imitating the United States, Britain, France and Germany by engaging in what Joseph Nye, a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government, termed “soft power,” or a collection of methods used to extend a country’s influence on the world stage.
One example of Chinese “soft power” was the creation of hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide. The objectives of Confucius Institutes are as old as the imperial era itself when the policies and geopolitical interests of the Middle Kingdom mirrored the stated objectives of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative.
The first Confucius Institute opened in South Korea in 2004 and the institutes quickly spread to Japan, Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe. Today there are more than 100 Confucius Institutes at public and private universities in the United States and more than that number at American high schools. An article in “The Economist” reported that the Chinese government spends $10 billion a year to promote its image abroad.
The Chinese government has made ample use of financial incentives to encourage the acceptance of Confucius Institutes on campuses worldwide. China pays $100,000 to each college or university that agrees to sponsor a Confucius Institute on its campus, making annual payments over five-years. It is not surprising that schools with institutes enroll a significant number of full-paying Chinese students.
The Communist Party of China has made no secret that it considers Confucius Institutes a “soft” propaganda arm for the government. Chinese minister of propaganda, Liu Yunshan, in an article in “People’s Daily,” wrote: “We want to coordinate the efforts of overseas and domestic propaganda and further create a favorable international environment for us.” Creating a favorable international environment includes no mention or discussion of Tiananmen Square, Taiwan or Tibet. Information disseminated through the institutes follows strict Communist Party lines. It is no accident that the ruling body of the Office of Chinese Language International, a branch of the Ministry of Education, coordinates all institutes’ programs.
Within the past few years there has been pushback from several colleges and universities with regard to Confucius Institutes. In 2014, for example, more than 100 University of Chicago faculty members signed a petition citing information from the Confucius Institute that contradicts the university’s core academic values. The university did not renew its Confucius Institute contract. McMaster University in Canada also did not renew its contract. Other universities followed suite, including, Pennsylvania State University, Stockholm University, and the University of Lyon. But other schools in the United States continue to support their Confucius institutes including, George Washington University, Tufts University, Portland State University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Still the controversy continues. In February 2018 Florida Senator Marco Rubio asked Miami Dade College and several universities in Florida, to shut down their Confucius programs. Along with many other government officials, Senator Rubio considers the institutes a threat to America’s national security by institutionalizing Chinese propaganda on American colleges and university campuses. The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation also raised concerns about Chinese infiltration on American college campuses and intellectual property issues.
The Chinese government, quick to recognize a problem, has promised reforms. What reforms will be implemented and when they will be implemented has not yet been determined.
Are Confucius Institutes examples of soft power becoming hard power, as enrollment of Chinese students becomes dependent on the institution hosting an institute? Are Confucius Institutes just one piece of China’s plan to be recognized as a major player on the world’s stage? Is it fair to criticize China for what many other countries have done for decades?
Each college and university already hosting a Confucius Institute or considering partnering with China to establish a Confucius Institute will have to decide how to proceed according to its culture, academic norms and international long-term strategic planning.
The term “Silk Road” was first coined in 1877 by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, to describe a connecting series of Chinese routes. Then, as now, the objective was to promulgate Chinese culture and influence worldwide.
The “One Belt Road One Road” is China’s new “Silk Road” and its major initiative to create economic and political, cultural and education influence, linking far-flung markets and energy reserves from the Arctic to the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. China’s plan calls for Europe, Asia and Africa to be connected by railways, highways and fiber-optic cables.
Chinese maps show the belt and road of ancient times as routes that traversed Eurasia and the seas between China and Africa. Today’s Chinese leaders speak about the “One Belt One Road” initiative as encompassing the entire world. The Chinese premier, XiJinping, considers the project as “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”
In 2016 the Ministry of Education released a document outlining the investment China will make in higher education in the 49 countries along the ancient “Silk Road.”
According to a report in September, 2016, by the Observatory on Borderless Education, The Chinese Ministry of Higher Education specifies three main avenues of education cooperation: interoperability between national education systems, including policy coordination, language teaching and degree recognition; student mobility and transnational education; and scholarships and capacity building.
A university network named “New Silk Road University League” was founded in May, 2015 by Xi’ an Jiaotong University, and encompasses nearly 100 universities from 22 countries. Another consortium, the “One Belt One Road University Strategic League,” was founded in Gansu Province in October 2015 and includes 46 universities, including Fudan University and Beijing Normal University and eight universities from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Malaysia, and South Korea.
China has educational collaborations with colleges and universities in Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.
China has a long history of exerting its “soft power” initiatives in Africa. In addition to subsidizing infrastructure projects in several African countries, China awards a significant number of university scholarships to African students to study in China. There are more African students studying in China than anywhere else in the world.
ASEAN students represent the biggest group of foreign students studying in Chinese colleges and universities. According to the China University and College Admission System, an online information and application portal, an estimated 80,000 students from Southeast Asia opted for a Chinese education in 2016.
According to Zhang Baohui, a professor and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, “Exporting education is a way to promote China’s “soft power.” It reflects China’s quest for broader influence in the world.”
China now allows international students to take part-time jobs during their studies in China in an attempt to make the country’s higher educational system more attractive to students worldwide. Off-campus internships are also allowed with the approval of a student’s Chinese college or university.
After graduation from a Chinese university international students are permitted to start their own business in the Zhangjiang National Innovation Demonstration Zone for up to two years after graduation.
A cautionary note: China’s “soft power” will last only as long as its cash reserves do. China will influence, but not entirely determine, global trends in international student mobility and enrollment.