Confucius Institutes and Soft Power

More and more people worldwide are learning Chinese each year, and if the Chinese government has anything to do with it, they’ll be learning at Confucius Institutes. Confucius Institutes (孔子学院) are a Ministry of Education initiative; they are in essence Chinese language and culture schools set up in foreign countries, sometimes at universities, that have direct ties to the Chinese government.

The institutes are a fairly new initiative — the first was set up in 2004 — but there are high hopes, and the government expects there to be 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020. They are one of the government’s soft power initiatives; in 2006 Zhou Qing’an, a researcher at the Center for International Communications Studies of Tsinghua University, said:

China still lags behind in terms of cultural competitiveness, and the Confucius Institute should add more profound and dynamic elements to attract attention overseas, rather than hanging on to superficial or stereotyped cultural icons.

Like anything associated with the Chinese government, reception abroad has been mixed. Requests from universities and other institutions continue to pile up — probably in no small part because of the shortage of qualified Chinese teachers abroad — but some university administrators fear letting in “a propaganda vehicle for the Chinese communist party” could make it “more difficult for academics to maintain their freedom and independence.”

In Canada, Intelligence Services reported last year on the Confucius Institutes, saying that they were part of a soft power play by the government. “China wants the world to have positive feelings towards China and things Chinese,” the report said.

In what seems to be a strange logical disconnect, the Chinese response has been to vehemently deny that Confucius Institutes exist to export Chinese values, something that no one seems to have accused them of in the first place. According to Xinhua:

The major goal of the Confucius Institutes abroad is to strengthen mutual understanding between China and foreign countries through cultural exchanges, said Xu Lin, director of the Chinese Language Council International, a national body promoting the Chinese language internationally and guiding the establishment of Confucius Institutes.

Xu told U.S.-based China Press in an interview on Thursday that foreign media reports that have said the Confucius Institutes are playing a key role in China’s cultural infiltration are groundless [and] that China had not and would not force foreigners to accept its values, adding that Confucianism emphasizes peace and harmony and adherence to tolerance of different cultures. She also said what China wants foreigners to know about is not a perfect China, but a real one.

A blog post that’s been circulating the Chinese net this week also rips into “western criticism”, arguing that “values” are an essential part of language learning, although the author (Xu Shilin) never actually says what criticism it is he’s responding to. Below is our translation of part of the post, which is called “If Confucius Institutes aren’t exporting values then don’t bother with them!”


There are things about the West that make one jealous, and there are things about it that make one unsure whether to laugh or cry at its stupidity. For example, there are those who’ve challenged Confucius Institutes, saying they’re exporting values. A Confucius Institute spokesperson responded by saying that the Institutes are oriented towards language training, not exporting value systems. Saying that is acceptable, and it certainly shut up the doubters. Chinese people study language, sometimes very intensely, yet no one has ever called into question that this is studying Western values. The C.I.’s polite response to this preposterous challenge is, in itself, transmitting a value: A gentleman doesn’t get angry at those who are ignorant.

Actually, this doubt isn’t something you need to try to understand, because it comes either from a lack of understanding or from ulterior motives. How can language training not include values? Would you really want to study a language with no value system in it? There’s no language in the world that doesn’t have a value system! Chinese language training will expose you to Chinese values inherent in the language, if they do you some good then you can hold on to them, if not, then don’t. How can you want to study another culture’s writing and ask them to throw out all of the values? If your own values are solid, you shouldn’t fear being “invaded” by other people’s. If Confucius Institutes only trained you in Chinese and never mentioned Chinese values, there would be no need for them and no way for them to exist.

I fear the doubters don’t understand Chinese at all. Studying English, you can just learn the letters first — this one looks like a beansprout, this one like an ear, etc. — and there’s no value system. But with Chinese characters, any one you study is part of a value system. If you want to study characters, there are values in all of them: rites (礼), justice (义), honesty (廉), shame (耻)…which one doesn’t have values?

[The author then raises a number of examples, including single characters and chengyu (four character idiomatic sayings), that are connected inherently to Chinese values. As this is likely of little interest to non-Chinese speakers, we haven’t bothered to translate it here, Chinese speakers can refer to the original essay if they’re interested in seeing the specifics.]

The Confucius Institutes’ response to this challenge used the values of a sage, and didn’t quibble with its challengers. Actually, the best method would be to make them study Chinese, and show them what valueless Chinese is like. For example, they could study a chengyu: “giving an autumn spinach at night” [figuratively, it means “flirt”]. Ask them, do you want to study with or without a value system. They will reply, without! Then you tell them “It means giving your family some autumn spinach during the nighttime.”


Admittedly, we may have missed something, but barring that, this seems like just the sort of cultural misunderstanding the Confucius Institutes and their ilk are meant to combat. Here, it seems to me the misunderstanding is mostly on the Chinese side, Western critics seem to have skipped it and moved straight to paranoia. In all honesty, even if the Institutes’ real purpose is to promote the CCP, how much damage is that really going to do in a country or at a university with academic freedom? For that matter, how can one really reconcile rejecting Confucius Institutes with Western values of academic freedom?Although I think the post we’ve translated above is tilting at windmills a bit, the author is right on one count. The beauty of freedom is that you get access to anything. If you don’t like the “propaganda” you’re getting from the Confucius Institutes, go somewhere else.

As one somewhat baffled university spokeswoman said in response to the Canadian Intelligence report on C.I.s, “We’re an educational institute, so it’s not something we look at in a political vein, or any sort of security vein […] What we’re doing really is delivering education for people.”

0 thoughts on “Confucius Institutes and Soft Power”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. “She also said what China wants foreigners to know about is not a perfect China, but a real one.”

    Shame China Daily doesn’t adhere to that philosophy.

    That said, I think Confucius Institutes are a good idea and should be given a chance but the concerns are understandable. Having first-hand experience of the Chinese single-party government, I can well imagine CI tutors/officials suggesting/pushing for the omission of politically sensitive course material.

    Is it just me or does anyone else feel uncomfortable when you see a sentence containing “China” and “foreigner”?


  3. “Is it just me or does anyone else feel uncomfortable when you see a sentence containing “China” and “foreigner”? ”

    It reflects the insularity of a Chinese government that pushes an agenda that sees the world as consisting of China and not China. And yes, it is discomfitting to think that this same agenda might be lent a voice through CI’s.

    There’s a CI near me. I’m going to investigate in the next week by talking to teachers and students. I’ll report back if I uncover a plot for Chinese world domination.


  4. The problem with the Confucius Institute is not that it is government sponsored; so are the Goethe Institute or the British Council. The problem is that the CI has targeted universities for partnerships and is paying for the running expenses of language teaching in those institutions. This may lead to conflicts of interest since academic research and cultural advocacy follow two legitimate, but fundamentally different, agendas. If the presence of a CI makes hosting institutions think twice before they do anything that may irritate the Chinese government, then there is a case for rejecting a CI for the sake of academic freedom.


  5. This is rich, “what China wants foreigners to know about is not a perfect China, but a real one” and sounds good but is not current practice and never has been.


  6. May 4th is a good time to question Confucian values. Generally speaking, you pick up values that you already have an intrinsic desire for and socialism or benevolence is definitely not one of man’s internal craving ever since the Confucian time. His 任 and 忠 seems almost impossible for everyone except the elite ‘gentlemen’ 君. Chinese language conveys meaning pictographic- ally and the English language is essentially phonetic. I’ve often wondered if pictures translates or convey values better than sound. For values to “attach” Confucius said ‘knowing’ alone is not nearly enough. Certainly I think Hollywood and Wall Street do a much better job of transmitting “American” values and getting them adopted, than CI or the British council will ever do. Confucius once said ” I have yet to meet the man who is as fond of virtue as he is of beauty in women.” Analects XV.13 If I understand him correctly this means the chance of picking up any meaningful “values” like millions of Chinese people who ALREADY know the Chinese language is slim. one does not need ‘to wear’ any ‘condoms’.


  7. @ Hemulen & No Way Sis

    Absolutely – thanks for clearly articulating the dangers here.

    “how can one really reconcile rejecting Confucius Institutes with Western values of academic freedom?”

    Because, should they emerge as a propaganda mouthpiece, that freedom will be denied within the teachings of the institutes. This looks more and more like a back door entry to restrict overseas academia’s discussion and criticism of those issues China would like to control/suppress.

    There is room for the Chinese point of view, but any foreign based CI with a policy or curriculum adhering strictly to a CCP narrative should not be tolerated.


  8. Nice post here!

    “In what seems to be a strange logical disconnect, the Chinese response has been to vehemently deny that Confucius Institutes exist to export Chinese values, something that no one seems to have accused them of in the first place.”

    This might be taken as a case of 此地无银三百两. I agree with Scott Loar’s comment above. A government sponsored educational outlet is not likely to show the “real” China (whatever that is), but rather a propaganda machine. China doesn’t let us have Radio Free Asia stations in mainland China (essentially American-government sponsored propaganda); why should we let them have CI’s that are going to teach a CCP-ified version of China?

    I have no objection with a CCP-sponsored language institute; it seems relatively harmless. I’m not really familliar with CI besides the basics so I don’t know how much is language training and how much is cultural / historical education.

    BTW I haven’t abandoned you. I have been incredibly busy so no posts from me, but I’ll get back to it in a week or two.


  9. I think the CI should promote “Philosopher-Businesspersons” (very much in the spirit of Confucian) in addition to teaching the Chinese language, along the line adopted by SOHO Technology 3.0 with its “Meeting or Becoming Philosopher-Businesspersons”. More details, together with download of comprehensive documents are available at


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