The first Confucius Institute (CI) opened its doors in Seoul, South Korea on November 24, 2004. Since then, the number of these Chinese cultural outposts has increased rapidly, with the Chinese government opening approximately two CIs per week throughout the world. To date, over 500 CIs operate in 87 countries across the globe. In the United States and other countries where CIs operate, the explosive growth of CIs gives rise to questions regarding their purpose and function. Experts are debating the problems encountered by CIs and ask whether CIs represent the expansion of China’s soft power. In this Commentary, I examine the function and purpose of CIs and argue that, despite their rapid worldwide growth and popularity, CIs suffer from a host of international obstacles as well as from criticism within China. Furthermore, CIs play a limited role as extensions of China’s soft power because they fail to account for contemporary aspects of Chinese culture.

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By Ren Zhe, Hokkaido University, Japan