China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) and Confucius Centers (CCs) found across the globe, are undoubtedly the emerging giant’s “soft power instruments”. They are meant to serve the ever expanding political, economic and strategic interests of Beijing in an unobtrusive way.
But in the process of doing so, they have encountered resistance in several countries.
Therefore, the authorities in China have of late been changing the goals and styles of functioning of the CIs to accord with ground realities.
The changes have resulted in the CIs and CCs now having three objectives: The first of course is to teach the Chinese language and Chinese culture and prepare the host countries to mentally accept the China-funded infrastructure projects under the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) .The second is to cater to specific local demands and needs. And the third is living down the suspicion that the CIs and CCs are not benign like the American Center or the British Council, but have a hidden political and strategic agenda impinging on the host countries’ sovereignty.
This was revealed at a two-day conference of CIs and CCs from Asian countries held in Colombo on June 27 and 28. It was jointly organised by the CI headquarters in China called “Hanban’ and the universities of Colombo and Kelaniya both of which host CIs. There were participants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Turkey, besides China.
Origins of CIs
As China came out of its shell to be an economic power with global ambitions following the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by President Xi Jinping, there was a crying need to make people across the world aware of China, the Chinese language and Chinese culture. The isolationist policies of the earlier Maoist era had made China a strange place and its people seem inscrutable. This needed to be corrected and corrected urgently, given the feverish pace of China’s expansion.
It was to “open” the world’s eyes to China, to inform the world about the cultural underpinnings of the BRI, and to give the BRI a universal appeal, that President Xi chose to project China as a country based on the universal appeal of the thoughts of Confucius (551 to 479 BC).
For good reasons, Xi did not pitch on Marxism-Leninism or even “Chinese socialism”. While the former has lost its appeal, the latter is but a brand of dictatorship which cannot be showcased abroad.
Confucius’ social philosophy, on the other hand, is based primarily on the principle of “Ren” or “loving others” while exercising self-discipline. Confucius believed that “Ren” could be put into action using the golden rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
According to Ven Dhammajothi Thero, Director of the Confucius Institute at Colombo University, Confucius wanted to make people “gentlemen” and not “sages.” This was because it was practicable to aspire to be a gentleman and not practical to aim to be a sage. Therefore, Confucianism is a practical and implementable philosophy which can be accepted across cultures, an ideal basis for making China and its BRI acceptable globally.
Twelve years ago, the Xi Jinping regime started setting up CIs and CCs primarily to teach the Chinese language, the philosophy of Confucius, and many aspects of Chinese culture. According to Yu Yunfeng, Deputy Chief Executive of the Confucius Institute Headquarters and Deputy Director General of Hanban, there are now 525 CIs and 1,113 CCs in 146 countries. And the numbers are growing as the BRI expands its reach constantly.
As Pang Chunxue, Charge de’ Affaires at the Chinese Embassy said, most of the CIs are in countries in which are on the BRI route. Justifying this, she said: “The CIs’ goal of bringing people together matches the goals of the BRI which are to narrow gaps in development between countries.”
CIs and CCs have been growing in numbers in Africa with China’s increasing economic presence in the continent. In South Asia, they have acquired a firm foothold in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Sri Lanka has two CIs – at the Colombo and Kelaniya Universities. They have only a marginal presence in India because of New Delhi’s entrenched suspicions about Chinese initiatives.
The CIs and CCs are funded by the Chinese government, which also sends and pays the teachers. Each CI or CC is attached to a Chinese University and each CI has two Directors, one from China and the other from the host country.
Responding to local needs
The courses in the CIs and CCs are primarily designed at the Confucius Institute Headquarters in China called “Hanban”. But in response to demands from the host countries, the courses have been expanded beyond language and culture to include subjects of local interest.
For example, in Pakistan, the CIs at the Agriculture University in Faisalabad, has tied up with an engineering and an agricultural university in Lahore to teach Chinese useful to agriculture and engineering students.
In Nepal, locals are taught vehicle maintenance not only to learn the trade but to be able to work in Chinese infrastructure projects in that rugged country said Prof Wang Shengli of the CI in Kathmandu University.
But the CIs and CCs have become controversial in some countries. They are suspected to be insidious institutions primarily meant to brainwash people of the host countries to wean them away from their entrenched beliefs, and make them think and act like the Chinese, in much the way as Thomas Babington Macaulay wanted to “Anglicise” Indians in mid-19th Century to make them the backbone of British rule in India.
This is because of China’s sudden rise and its rush to dominate the globe with its economic muscle. The mushrooming of CIs in the last decade is seen as part being part of a hurriedly pursued expansionist project.
Speaking at the Colombo conference of CIs, Ven Dhammajothi Thero Director of the CI in Colombo University said: “The CI headquarters should make their objectives clear so that there is no misunderstanding and suspicions which are voiced in many countries, as in Vietnam. For this, there should be greater localisation of teaching material and teaching personnel. There should also be a two-way flow with the course content being 50% Chinese and 50% local.”
The monk, who is a fluent Mandarin speaker, said that he opposes all kinds of globalisation, whether Western or Chinese, if that would mean the obliteration of indigenous cultures and thought.
India has allowed CIs but they are not encouraged by the government, even though there is a growing demand for learning the Chinese language from people trading with China, said Shikha Pandey, Asst. Professor of Chinese Studies in Mumbai University. “The Sino-India standoff is standing in the way of the development of China-studies in India,” Pandey said.
But most Asian delegates, who came from countries with BRI projects in them, saw the CIs and CCs as being useful as job providers in BRI projects.
As Ven Dhammajothi said: “People learn a language to get jobs and people in Sri Lanka need jobs.” Prof Lakshman Dissanayake, Vice Chancellor of Colombo University noted that it is useful to learn Chinese given the growing presence of Chinese in Sri Lanka, thanks to the massive infrastructure projects. With a Free Trade Agreement on the cards, Chinese and Lankan businessmen would need to communicate with each other and with Chinese tourists pouring in, there would be a need for Chinese knowing interpreters and guides, he said.
Yu Yunfeng, Deputy Chief Executive of the Confucius Institute Headquarters and Deputy Director General of Hanban, said that CI top brass are not against improvisation and localisation.
“We are open and broadminded. The CIs are integrating with local communities and are attempting to use local teachers and local teaching material,” Yu said.
Another official from the CI headquarters, Zheng Menglin, said that the “CIs belong to all. They help others to understand China and the Chinese to understand other countries and cultures. Towards those ends changes are being made,”
Asking people to be patient, Zheng said: “The CI is only 12 years old and is therefore a teenager experiencing growing up pains.”
Backing up Yu Yunfeng and Zheng Menglin, Prof Ashfaq Ahmad Chattha of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan, said that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has created enormous job opportunities for Pakistani youth, thanks to a bilateral agreement between China and Pakistan which enjoins Chinese companies to employ qualified locals.
But another Pakistani delegate from Karachi said that Pakistan had to “fight hard” to get the Chinese companies in CPEC to employ local skilled workers because the companies preferred Chinese workers.
G Jimpei, from the CI in Karachi revealed that Chinese companies are not interested in interacting with the CIs. Perhaps they prefer to bring Chinese labour rather than take local workers.
Another Chinese delegate said that while the CI headquarters might agree to make changes, it might take some time to get results because the rigid Chinese bureaucracy takes time to think and act differently and creatively.
The delegate from Bangladesh, Kong Jia Jia alias Prema, a Chinese lady who also speaks fluent Bangla, said that there is tremendous interest in learning Chinese in Dhaka because of the hope to find jobs in Chinese projects in Bangladesh and also in China.
“The demand is so high that we need more centres. Dhaka is a huge city and we need to open more centres to cater to people living in far flung areas,” Prema said.
Flipside to job orientation
But there is flip side to job oriented courses in the CIs and CCs. As Kumar Priyanka Jayasooriya Professor of Chinese in Kalefniya University said, students who pass out do not come back to teach, even as volunteers, because they get well-paid jobs in the Chinese companies in the island.
“The reason for this is that university teachers are poorly paid. Because of a lack of qualified teachers we have to make do with teachers without a post-graduate degree. We also have to depend on part time volunteer teachers, and that is reflected in quality,” she said.
“One way to get round the problem is to make it mandatory for those who go to China on scholarships to come back and teach for a set period,” Jayasooriya suggested.
Most participants wanted China to train more local teachers and also to send more teachers from China to narrow the huge gap between demand and supply.