The Debate

The Future of China’s Confucius Institutes

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The Debate

The Future of China’s Confucius Institutes

As Western universities drag their feet, the future of China’s soft power push might be in the developing world.

The Future of China’s Confucius Institutes
Credit: Confucius image via Shutterstock

Once again, China’s Confucius Institutes are under fire in the U.S. In a statement on September 25, the University of Chicago said that it had decided “to suspend negotiations for the renewal of the agreement for a second term of the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago.”

Confucius Institutes have been under close scrutiny recently, as many academics argue the Chinese government-funded institutes wind up restricting academic freedom at their host universities. In July, the American Association of University Professors published a report blasting the Confucius Institute model as a partnership “that sacrificed the integrity of the [host] university and its academic staff.” The AAUP recommended shutting down U.S. Confucius Institutes unless they could meet certain standards of academic freedom and transparency.

The University of Chicago specifically also saw a backlash against its CI. Back in April, over 100 University of Chicago professors signed a petition calling for the school to close its Confucius Institute. The petition raised concerns about the Chinese government being able to influence the curriculum at University of Chicago.

The university did not mention these concerns in its statement on September 25, but instead attributed its decision to “recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban.” The Wall Street Journal notes that the Chinese Jiefang Daily recently published details about Hanban director Xu Lin’s dealings with the University of Chicago. According to that story, University of Chicago administrators became “anxious” at the thought of shutting down the Confucius Institutes and reassured Xu that they wanted to keep it open. That bit of bad PR may have been the final straw for the University of Chicago.

Yet even as the University of Chicago pulled the plug on its CI, celebrations were unfolding around the world to mark the 10th anniversary of the CI program. Since the first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul in 2004, China has established 465 institutes in 123 countries. In a letter written to mark the newly-dubbed “Confucius Institute Day,” Chinese President Xi Jinping called the Confucius Institute “a symbol of China’s unremitting efforts for world peace and international cooperation [that] links the Chinese people and people of other countries.” He praised the CI program for its “important role … in enhancing understanding and friendship between Chinese people and people of other countries.”

The Confucius Institutes are often understood as China’s major soft power push, an attempt to increase the number of young people studying (and ideally coming to admire) Chinese culture and language. The controversy over the Confucius Institutes is a blow to this initiative in the United States (and Canada). However, it’s important to remember that the West is not the only target audience for China’s soft power push. In fact, over time, their most important successes may be not in the West but in fellow developing countries.

Right now, the CI program is heavily weighted toward the West. Of the 465 institutes, 97 are located in the U.S., more than the 95 institutes currently operating in all of Asia. Another 149 Confucius Institutes are in Europe. In part the lopsided numbers reflect the higher number of universities in the developed world. However, if backlash in the West continues to grow, the number of Confucius Institutes may plateau in the West while there remains immense potential for growth in other regions.

Africa is a case in point. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center,  out of six African countries surveyed (Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa), a majority of respondents in five had a positive view of China (in South Africa, 48 percent had a favorable view of China). With generally positive impressions of China, African countries could provide fertile soil for the soft power of Confucius Institutes. Currently, there are only 38 Confucius Institutes on the entire continent, leaving immense room for future growth. On a continent often viewed as a “battleground” between China and the West (particularly the U.S.), Confucius Institutes could conceivably plays a major role in shaping the next generation’s attitudes toward China.

There’s similar potential for Confucius Institutes in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Latin America, where impressions of China are generally positive but the CI programs is underdeveloped. Establishing more Confucius Institutes would go hand-in-hand with Beijing’s other aid projects in the developing world. While such efforts can be problematic (witness the ever-present accusations of China’s “neo-colonialism”), in general governments and populations alike are happy to accept such aid. And in each of these areas, Chinese soft power would provide crucial geopolitical benefits in the future.