Confucius Institutes: Expanding China's soft power

France has its Alliance Francais, Britain the British Council and Germany the Geothe Institute – organisations which promote their culture and language.

Not to be left out is China.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Confucius Institute, a network of 353 institutes and 473 classrooms around the world funded by the Chinese government.

Some feel that the institutes have done little to change the impression people have of China, yet others feel quite strongly that they have helped craft China's International image, and expand China's soft power.

The first Institute in the United States was started at the University of Maryland in 2005. Since then, more than 70 others have sprung up across the country, partnering with universities, high schools and community organisations to provide language classes and cultural activities for the community.

In Rhode Island for example, nine Confucius classrooms have been set up in elementary schools and high schools to teach the Chinese language. The Confucius Institute at Bryant University in Rhode Island is also involved in organising a mid-autumn festival activities. This year, there will be an exhibit of early writing on bamboo and scholars from China will fly in to give talks on the subject.

While there is no official tally on how much the Chinese government has spent funding these institutes and their programmes, reports show that schools have received US$50,000 (S$63,400) to US$100,000 each in funding to start an institute.

Some experts argue that Confucius Institutes have done little to change China's opinion poll ratings. For example data from the Pew Research Centre shows that China's favourability rating in the US dropped from 43 per cent in 2005 to 39 per cent in 2008.

But The Heritage Foundation's senior fellow for public diplomacy, Helle Dale, says the Confucius Institutes, together with international events and projects such as the Beijing Olympics and China's space programme, have presented China as a different entity from before.

“[Chinese] diplomats are more sophisticated, and there are school exchanges,” she adds. “China is showing that it is a modern society.”

One way to assess the regular American's opinion of China is their willingness to travel there, says Mrs Dale.

In 2008, Japan was the top Asian destination for Americans. But over the last few years, China has nabbed the top spot.

Ten years ago, those who travelled to China would probably be government officials or academics, says Mrs Dale, but now, “people are going for investments, for business, and people have family or friends in China”.

“I believe this is an indicator that China is popular and has a good image,” she says.

The debate over whether universities should accept grants to set up Confucius Institutes continues till this day.

Some critics have accused the Institutes of hosting Chinese intelligence officers, keeping track of students on campus, and shaping academic discourse on China.

Mrs Dale says that at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, there was resistance from the Confucius Institute when the Dalai Lama was invited as a speaker to the University in 2012. He ultimately did make an appearance.

Dr Hong Yang, director of the US-China Institute at Bryant University says he understands the concern that when an institution “receives grants from X,Y,Z, academic freedom will be influenced”.

But he points out that the US government also funds programmes but we “do not hear criticism”.

At the end of the day, Dr Yang feels having a Confucius Institute complements the US-China Institute at his university and helps to fulfill part of the University's mission.

“We provide knowledge about China to students whether they view China as collaborator or competition,” he says.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg