Confucius Institutes and China’s Soft Power

As a part of an on-going public diplomacy, I am very interested in how China’s Confucius Institutes sanitizing China’s image abroad, promoting its “soft power” globally.

According to the official announcement, 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, promoting its “soft power” globally, and creating a new generation of China watchers who well-disposed towards the Communist dictatorship.

Other countries like France’s Alliance Francaises, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes, or Germany’s Goethe Institut also promoting their soft power in this way, by maintain their presence within established universities and exercise of control on the class curriculum. However, the mainstream media has been paying close attention to this controversy over the past two years, remarkably right after the U.S. State Department complicated visa extension for Confucius Institute teachers in 2012.

While the Confucius Institutes are sometimes compared to France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, this is misleading. Unlike the other two, Confucius Institutes are neither independent from their government, nor are do they occupy their own interests. Instead, they are located within well-established universities and colleges around the world, and are directed and funded by the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), based in Beijing, which answers in turn to the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China and, chiefly, to the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, the Chairman of the Confucius Institute is none other than Liu Yandong, who served as the head of the United Front Work Department from 2002 to 2007.

The United Front Work Department is aimed of subversion, cooption and control. During the Communist revolution, it subverted and coopted a number of other political parties, such as the Chinese Socialist Party, into serving the interests of the Communist Party. After the establishment of the PRC, it continued to control these parties, which were allowed to exist on sufferance, albeit as hollow shells, to create the illusion of “democracy” in China. That it has de facto control over the Hanban suggests, more strongly than anything else, what one of the chief purposes of the Confucius Institutes are, namely, to subvert, coopt, and ultimately control Western academic discourse on matters pertaining to China.

Objections to particular Confucius Institutes have also emerged. For example, in 2010, 174 University of Chicago faculty members signed a letter that, among other things, objected to the establishment of a Confucius Institute in absence of Faculty Senate approval. The letter described the institute as “an academically and politically ambiguous initiative sponsored by the government of the People’s Republic of China,” and asserted that, “Proceeding without due care to ensure the institute’s academic integrity, [the administration] has risked having the university’s reputation legitimate the spread of such Confucius Institutes in this country and beyond.”

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