China’s Confucius Institute: working to plan?

China’s Confucius Institute: working to plan?

Confucius Institutes make a valuable contribution to Chinese language teaching and learning abroad, but Jeffrey Gil questions their impact on China’s international profile

China sees promoting the study of its language as a way of conveying knowledge and understanding of itself, its culture, history and politics. The promotion of language and culture is part of China’s use of soft power to accomplish its goals in global politics. It is not alone in this endeavour.

The Confucius Institute project was set up in 2004 for this purpose. It promotes Chinese language and culture through the Confucius Institutes, Confucius Classrooms, volunteer and state–sponsored Chinese language teachers, and the Chinese Bridge Chinese language competitions.

The hope is that through learning Chinese language and culture people outside China will become more positively disposed towards it. Is the strategy working?

At the end of 2016, there were 512 Confucius Institutes and 1,073 Confucius Classrooms in 140 countries and regions, making a valuable contribution to Chinese language teaching and learning around the world. They provide teaching materials, resources and personnel, language classes and cultural activities, and support for teachers and language courses in universities and schools.

Beyond this, however, the Confucius Institute project has done little to improve China’s standing on the global stage. Analysis of BBC World Service Poll results 2005–2014 shows the percentage of people who believed China had a mainly positive influence in the world hovered at around 40–45 per cent, and never exceeded 50 per cent.

The Confucius Institute project is not persuading foreign governments to comply with China either. China’s relations with Japan remain tense, Australia continues to be anxious about Chinese investment and the US wary of China’s intentions and actions, to mention just a few prominent examples.

It is not that surprising. Widespread English language–learning does not result in agreement with the policies and actions of Anglophone countries either. Many governments and international organisations use English as an official or working language, but it does not follow that their foreign policies are pro-American or pro-British. By the same token, learning Chinese does not automatically confer positive perceptions or attitudes towards China, or agreement with what it does.


In fact, the Confucius Institute project has been criticised by government, academia, media and the general public in many parts of the world. There are concerns the Institutes and Classrooms may restrict academic freedom, be used to spread propaganda or act as platforms for the Chinese government to gain influence over universities and schools.

The Confucius Institute project has been criticised around the world.

A well-known case took place in Canada in 2014. Plans to establish a Confucius Institute to support Confucius Classrooms in Toronto District School Board schools met with public protest. Protesters can be seen in a YouTube video of the incident carrying signs that read: ‘No Communist CI in TDSB’ and ‘I Don’t Want Communist Chinese Textbook’.

While there is no hard evidence to support these concerns, the Confucius Institute project has been affected. The TDSB cancelled its plans. The University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University closed their Confucius Institutes down, and the University of Manitoba and Cornell University refused to establish any at all.

Practical and organisational issues about the operation of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms remain unresolved. These include the relation to existing Chinese departments and programs, the quality of teaching staff and long-term sustainability. If the promotion of Chinese language and culture cannot be carried out as planned, it is unlikely China will derive much benefit from it.

Other national language and culture promotion organisations have not met with such criticisms and concerns. Online searches for issues with either the Alliance Française, Dante Alighieri Society, British Council, Goethe Institute, Cervantes Institute, Japan Foundation, King Sejong Institutes, Indian Cultural Centres, or Taiwan Academy have not found anything. In fact, many searches turned up media reports and/or academic articles about the Confucius Institute project instead.

China viewed differently

The Confucius Institute project is perceived differently from other language and culture promotion organisations because China itself is viewed differently from other countries.

No amount of Chinese language classes or cultural activities is likely to make a difference to this without real changes in China’s policies and its actions

In their book, Anti–Americanisms in World Politics, Katzenstein and Keohane distinguish between reactions to what America is (i.e. the nature and characteristics of the country), and reactions to what America does (i.e. its policies and how they affect others). This helps explain why the Confucius Institute project has generated negative reactions while other similar organisations have not.

Without a doubt, what China does plays a role. A negative view of China is the result of corruption, censorship, human rights issues, and environmental degradation. No amount of Chinese language classes or cultural activities is likely to make a difference to this without real changes in China’s policies and its actions.

The more significant issue remains what China is. Criticism and concern about the Confucius Institute project are not due to China’s promotion of its language and culture per se, but due to the fact that China is a communist country and its government funds it.

The reception of Confucius Institutes in India encapsulates the problem. Early attempts to establish Confucius Institutes were aborted, and while one has opened at Mumbai University and one is planned for Manipal University, both are conditional on the Chinese government having no direct involvement in their operations. Strict visa conditions apply for teaching staff from China.

In the words of an Indian diplomat, ‘This isn’t an unconditional, open invitation to China. [W]e want cultural exchanges between the two nations, but we also have concerns that we don’t [have] with the US, the UK, France or any of the other European nations’.

In all this, we should keep in mind that the Confucius Institute project is still only in its thirteenth year, a very short time compared to the Alliance Française (founded 1883), the British Council (founded 1934) and even the Cervantes Institute (founded 1991). The limitations of language learning in influencing attitudes and perceptions, criticisms and concerns, and practical and organisational issues have combined to constrain the Confucius Institute project’s contribution to improving China’s standing on the global stage.

The Confucius Institute project may yet have a significant influence, if it can survive for as long as other similar organisations that promote national language and culture and work through the challenges it faces.

This article is based on Dr Gil’s book Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project, published by Multilingual Matters.

Featured image
Confucius sculpture, Nanjing. Photo: Kevinsmithnyc, Wikimedia Commons

Dr Jeffrey Gil teaches and develops ESOL and TESOL topics at undergraduate and postgraduate level at Flinders University, and is former coordinator of the Chinese program. He has taught at university in China.

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