Don Starr says that he remembers thinking after the Confucius Institutes initiative was announced in 2004 that: ‘This is going to have a big impact.’
His instincts seem to have been right.
When I spoke to the long-time China educator and scholar about the now seven-year-old Chinese soft power programme, he also told me that one of the reasons it can be considered a huge success is its unexpectedly rapid expansion. ‘Their original plan was to have 100 institutes by 2010, then they modified it to 500. I think they’ve more or less met that figure,’ he says. That’s already more than double the total number of British Council offices around the world, even though that institution has been around for almost eight decades.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So how has this all been made possible? Well, it seems a certain amount of economic savvy has been an essential part of the success.
No Big Overheads
‘The grand daddy of all of these (country institutes) is really the Alliances Frances,’ Starr says of France’s institutes, which operate with independent branches that typically meet in a hall or some other such local place. But what the Chinese have done is taken the Alliances Frances model and reinvented it, so that they’re ‘not local independent branches at all.’
The whole Confucius Institute system is meant to operate on a 50-50 cost-sharing basis between the Chinese Hanban, (the executive body of the Chinese Language Council International—a non-governmental and non-profit organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education),and the university in the country concerned. But since it’s been worked out in such a way that the university where the institute is located only needs to provide infrastructure and accommodation as their main contribution (heating, lighting, telephones, etc) the Chinese government is able to save an enormous amount at its own end. This, Starr says, contrasts with programmes such as the British Council and the Japan Foundation, which rent or buy their own offices. In effect, what makes the Confucius Institutes easier to set up around the world is the simple fact that they don’t have big overheads.
So what does the Hanban pay for then? Starr says that the system is all based on a trilateral agreement: ‘In principle, as policy of a CI agreement, it’s between the Hanban, the foreign university and the Chinese university. But the essential agreement is between the foreign university and the Hanban because it’s the organization that provides the money. And the agreement normally means that the Chinese side sends two members of staff each year free of charge to the incoming institution to teach Chinese.
‘In addition to that, they receive funds for projects, and these can be for schools, going into schools and doing things, holding conferences, workshops on Chinese language teaching, and other activities like that. They simply put in a budget each year, and the projects are on a cost-sharing basis with the institution concerned.’
So, are there any downsides to this seemingly cost-efficient and straightforward set-up? Starr says that there is one, and that’s the ‘burden on universities that have a lot of agreements.’ He explains, ‘Some have 20 or more partners, so that means they’ve got to find 40 members of staff each year to send abroad for at least one or two years. And sometimes people go for longer—3 or 4 years.’
I was curious how these institutes actually operate worldwide, on a day-to-day basis, so I asked Chuan Sheng Liu, director of the Confucius Institute in Maryland, and Rebecca McGinnis, the institute’s coordinator, for their views.
Confucius Institute, Day-to-Day
Among the activities undertaken to promote Chinese culture are Chinese language classes and various cultural events that are held on the campus of the University of Maryland. Other events include weekend classes for children and also the hosting of free performances of music, dance and martial arts by travelling university troupes from China. The institute also offers Chinese language testing for the HSK, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, and other common Chinese language tests, and hosts annual language competitions that provide winning teams the opportunity to travel to China for further competitions.
According to Liu, all of these activities have proven especially successful because the Confucius Institute at Maryland happens to be ‘near the nation's capital, where a growing number of people are interested in learning about China.’
I spoke with Kenneth Hammond, director of the Confucius Institute at New Mexico State University, who confirmed language is a primary focus of his institute as well. According to Hammond, they’ve ‘been working with the local public schools for the past three and a half years to develop Chinese language education.’ And in the four elementary schools and one high school the Confucius Institute at New Mexico State Universityis partnered with, a total of 2,500 students are now learning Chinese as well as about Chinese culture and history.
Other activities, Hammond told me, include a speakers’ series that brings scholars to campus twice each semester to give public talks on a wide variety of topics including ‘things like the Silk Road, Confucian thought, Chinese gardens, Women in traditional China, Chinese education, academic conferences on China topics, student exchange programmes and an after-school weiqi club.’
One particularly flourishing programme, he says, has been in elementary schools, where students take part in activities such as Lunar New Year celebrations, or the Mid-Autumn Festival. Students also learn about writing Chinese and using Chinese calligraphy. Hammond says the celebrations of Chinese holidays in elementary schools have been receiving very good local media coverage, including on TV. ‘Images of happy children doing dragon dances seem very popular. I think many local people are very excited that children here have this educational opportunity,’ he says.
Starr told me he has also noticed that calligraphy is particularly popular amongst learners both young and old in Britain. ‘Everybody likes calligraphy. Writing Chinese characters is one of the areas that attract every age group really.’ He was surprised to find that ‘even for difficult teenagers in the UK—people who aren’t very interested in education—the idea that they might have some Chinese characters stencilled on their back or their arm is very, very attractive…it’s amazing how interested they are in that.’
Starr says that while in Britain, Japanese culture is considered very cool, on the whole Chinese culture is considered less so. But still, just ‘having characters stencilled on you is very cool,’ he adds.
Overall, Starr says the key to continued success of soft power initiatives such as these will be three-fold: the open-mindedness of the young, the longevity of the outreach and communication through shared language.
‘Young people’s attitudes toward China will change a whole generation’s perceptions of China. And I think that will be tremendously important,’ he says. ‘Of course, the Olympics were important, but it was a short-term, one-off, high-impact event. And if you think back to Olympic Games that have taken place in the past, they don’t have a long-lasting impact, do they? The trouble is they can’t use the infrastructure afterward.’
‘It’s a hearts and minds thing,’ he concludes. ‘And I don’t think the Olympics change people’s heart and minds. But learning another language does.’
I’ll be touching on Chinese as a potential global language soon. But before that, I’ll be examining the backlash against Confucius Institutes—and allegations that they are simply Chinese propaganda.