Sometimes described as Trojan horses, propaganda tools and cultural invaders with ulterior motives, it is fair to say that Confucius Institutes are viewed with some suspicion.
However, research scrutinising the political and economic influence of the institutes suggests that they may be more impotent than commonly assumed.
Unlike other overseas language and cultural programmes, such as the British Council or Germany’s Goethe-Institut, the Confucius Institute programme operates in universities and schools, while remaining ultimately answerable to the Chinese government. Li Changchun, an influential Chinese Communist Party official, was quoted in a 2009 report in The Economist describing Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, is among those asking critical questions about Confucius Institutes.
“The Mussolini regime used language instruction to try to burnish its international image. In the US, the textbooks that would be used to teach Italian in the 1930s were explicitly pro-fascist and pro-Mussolini,” he told Times Higher Education. “This raises questions about Confucius Institutes. For instance, when a Confucius Institute pays for a certain curriculum, what does that curriculum say about the current regime in China?”
However, the new study authored by an Australia-based academic and two scholars in China, and published in China Information, found that – among other difficulties – the negative popular image of Confucius Institutes may have prompted a distrust of them that restricts their influence.
“The influence, especially the negative influence, of the Confucius Institute could have been exaggerated,” said Hong Zhu, one of the study authors and a professor of cultural geography based at South China Normal University. “The general argument [in academia], which portrays Confucius Institutes as serving China’s global interests, should not be accepted without question.”
Professor Zhu and his colleagues looked at regions in which the Confucius Institute programme has been expanding, and found that the programme had not had a uniformly positive influence on economic factors such as imports, exports and inbound tourist numbers.
The researchers also found that Confucius Institutes had failed to improve opinions towards China since the programme began in 2004: results from the US-based Pew Research Center’s “Opinion of China” polls found that with few exceptions, attitudes towards China have deteriorated, especially in Asia, Europe and North America.
Interviewing Confucius Institute staff in different regions of the world, the researchers also reported that far from being proud tools of propaganda for the Chinese government, staff are “hesitant”, and skirt around political issues to avoid conflict.
“This is a kind of ‘self-discipline’ employed by Chinese staff […] Since the theories of a ‘China threat’ have been widely portrayed outside China, Chinese staff prefer to be conservative rather than aggressive, aiming to avoid being criticised by their foreign co-operators,” said Professor Zhu.
He added that Hanban – the Chinese organisation that runs the Confucius Institute programme – has had its power decentralised and diluted through the rapid expansion of the programme. Facing this among other difficulties, Confucius Institutes fail to peddle influence on a global or a local scale.
“We suggest that academic[s], public media and politicians should rethink the influence of the Confucius Institute in concrete social economic and cultural contexts rather than stereotype the Confucius Institute as [a] giant power machine discursively related to the theories of a ‘China threat’.”