Another Confucius Institute opens, but does it boost China’s soft power?

Another Confucius Institute opens, but does it boost China’s soft power?

By Ren Zhe

Another Confucius Institute has opened in Strasbourg, adding to the list of more than 500 CIs the Chinese government has set up in 87 countries around the world. 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.

Confusion and uncertainty about the CI’s purpose, ideology, and connection with the Chinese government constitute a hindrance to their expansion in top universities. Of the more than 17 CIs launched in Japan since 2005, all were at private colleges. The Imperial universities, as Japan’s national universities are known, declined to open CIs despite pressure from their Chinese counterparts. Chinese culture traditionally holds significant influence in Japan, but people remain concerned by the potential ideological and cultural threat of Chinese government-run projects such as CIs. In the U.S., over 60 CIs have opened. Like Japan however, the majority of top institutions have hesitated to open CIs, with the exception of the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Joseph Nye argues that CIs play an important role in the rise of China’s soft power projection. He is only partially correct. If we examine the CI programs, the content focuses largely on the traditional aspects of China’s culture, but ignores the contemporary dimensions. Culture has two faces: one is the traditional aspect inherited and passed down through the generations, the other is the more modern version produced by the newer generation.The modern aspect, or current popular culture is more accessible to the outside than traditional culture, which is multi-layered and complex.

Japan and South Korea have traditional cultures closely related to China’s, but both countries have their own distinct popular cultures, which are represented abroad by such phenomena as manga and anime in Japan and hanryu or the Korean Wave in South Korea. Manga has a huge international market. With its wide range of content including popular culture as well as reproduced traditional influences, manga is able to reach large audiences and helps them understand Japan better. Popular media forms such as manga or anime serve as many young peoples’ introductions to Japanese culture, and often lead to further study of Japanese language and culture. Therefore, manga serves as a point of identification and introduction for Japanese pop culture that strengthens Japan’s soft power.

However, China has no such readily accessible point of identification within the Confucius Institutes, with their focus on traditional culture, which holds less attraction for young people. Without such a popular draw, the CIs cannot serve their intended purpose, and do little to increase China’s soft power.

If China truly wants to dramatically increase its soft power, it needs to find a point of convergence between its culture and the rest of the world — something that will draw outsiders in beyond a general interest in language study. This is a difficult task for Chinese intellectuals and government officials. They are still searching for this “key concept” and have yet to find it. Coining a “key concept” for Chinese culture is crucial to popularizing Chinese language and culture abroad. Without it, China’s soft power will remain limited.

Ren Zhe (Ph.D) is a Research Fellow of the International Training Program for Young Scholars, the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, Japan.

The full text of this analysis is available as a Policy Commentary by the Sigur Center for Asian Studies.