China’s Soft Power: Why Confucius Institutes Are Under Scrutiny in India and Across the Globe

Padmaja Venkataraman
·6-min read

The Indian government has recently announced a review of the Confucius Institutes (CI's) in colleges across the country. Reports said that Indian chapters of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in seven colleges and universities are under the scanner.

The review was launched after security agencies sounded the government about their concerns around the growing Chinese influence in higher education and culture. The move assumes significance as it comes nearly two months after Chinese and Indian troops clashed at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, leading to the death of 20 Indian soldiers.

Reacting to the development, Chinese embassy spokesperson, Hi Rong, urged India to treat Confucius Institutes in a “fair manner” and “avoid politicising” normal cooperation. India, however, is not the first country to launch a crackdown on these institutions.

Last year, Australia had raised concerns over the increasing influence of CIs in its universities and constituted a task force to thwart what it described as attempts by foreign governments to interfere in the country’s educational institutions. Many universities in the US have also ordered closures of these Chinese-backed language and cultural programs on their campus. There have also been shutdowns in France, Sweden, Canada and Belgium among others.

WHY CI's ARE SO CONTENTIOUS

Named after China’s renowned philosopher and thinker, the Confucius Institute program began in 2004 in South Korea’s Seoul, with a stated aim of promoting Chinese language and culture. It caters to overseas demand for Chinese language learning. According to a BBC report, as of 2018, there were 548 CI’s around the world and 1,193 Confucius classrooms based in primary and secondary schools.

The website of Hanban, an agency part of China’s ministry of education that manages these institutes, says that the function of these non-profit educational institutions is to “enhance understanding of Chinese language and culture among foreigners, develop friendly relations between China and other countries, and foster the development of multiculturalism…”

But what makes CIs particularly contentious is their proximity to Chinese Communist Party and China’s renewed push for soft power under Xi Jinping’s vision of a ‘Chinese Dream.’

Professor Dibyesh Anand of London's University of Westminster, an expert on China and its politics, said that CI's have never hidden their direct links with Beijing and the CCP.

“Confucius Institutes are integral to Chinese public diplomacy where the visible focus is on generating positive image of China as a benign civilisational power while the invisible agenda is to raise the cost for foreign universities to conduct research and/or host events critical of Chinese Communist Party,” Anand said.

Critics of these institutions have also pointed out that within classrooms, there is extensive censorship on issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and historical events like the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square massacre.

Notably, a campaign launched by activist group Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) called for the closure of CIs, saying that it “…threatens academic freedom and free speech...is controlled by the Chinese Government, and is a central part of its soft power plan to improve the global view of China’s authoritarian system.”

But many argue that CIs are similar to culture and language organisations like the Alliance Française or Germany's Goethe Institute.

"In a way, CI is no different from British Council or Alliance Francaise for they all serve the purpose of improving image of their respective country. However, while western organisations represent the state and not the government, CI represents an authoritarian Party State,” Anand said.

On the Indian government’s decision to shut down CI’s in the country, Anand said that the move is not likely to be anything more than “gestural politics” because unlike the West, China is India's neighbour, and unlike Western universities that provide plenty of other non-CI opportunities to learn Chinese and about China, there are relatively few chances in India.

“What India needs to do is invest heavily in researching and studying China at various universities without letting security-strategy to become the sole focus,” he underscored.

TOOL OF CHINA’S SOFT POWER?

Soft power — which has now become an important terminology in foreign policy discourse — was coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye. It is defined as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.

According to a report published by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018, while ascertaining the exact funds earmarked by China for its soft power push is difficult, experts, such as US sinologist David Shambaugh of George Washington University estimated the yearly spending at $10 billion a year. The report also identified CIs and educational exchanges as some of the vital tools of China’s soft power campaign.

Gunjan Singh, an assistant professor at the Jindal Global Law School and a former research fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, also believes that one of the major objectives behind establishing these Institutes was to extend the Chinese soft power.

“However, the closeness between the Chinese government and CI’s has greatly affected this goal. CI's have been an extension of Chinese government and a body by which the Chinese government wants to influence the public views in the host countries. They have also been very strict about the courses and topics of discussions and hence were not seen fit in major democratic set ups and university campuses,” Singh said.

Parama Sinha Palit, an affiliated researcher at Swedish South Asian Studies Network, Lund University, and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the RSIS, Singapore, feels that given the current Covid-19 scenario the world over, which is reshaping the global cultural flow, the CIs are hardly capable of communicating China’s soft power.

“With the Chinese leadership employing the ‘internet police’ to threaten its domestic public’s posting on its failure to handle the virus while attempting to adjust the narrative retroactively on the one hand, and its maritime aggression amid the pandemic on the other, CIs are hardly in a position to pose as instruments of Beijing's soft power,” Palit said.

WHAT CHINA SAYS

Last week, after the US State Department's designated the Confucius Institute US Center (CIUS) as a Chinese "foreign mission”, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian decried the decision and said that the US was trying to “demonise and stigmatise the normal operation of China-US cooperation projects.”

But it appears that China has closely watched the closures and taken steps to quell international backlash. Last month, in an unexpected move, China decided to rebrand its ambitious programme.

According to a report in the state-run Global Times, a centre for Chinese language education and cooperation has been set up under the Ministry of Education and the Confucius Institutes brand would now be run by a newly launched non-governmental organisation. The report, citing analysts, said that the move would “disperse the Western misinterpretation” that the CIs acted as “China's ideological marketing machine.”

However, many, including Palit, believe that the rebranding may not have a significant impact. “What’s in a name?” she asked.

“If the aggressive posture of the Chinese leadership continues, and I see little chance of its ebbing in the near future, the rebranding will not help in quelling scepticism or the negativity which pervades the global perception regarding China,” she added.