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Society & Culture

Should the World Fear Chinese Soft Power?

Dec 04, 2014
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

Confucius, offering the world words of wisdom for centuries reminded us: “He who learns but does not think, is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

Increasingly people are asking is the world is at risk with China spreading its dragon wings by sharing its language and culture around the globe. Where is the danger in that?

All great nations seek to imbed its culture, language, history and learning around the world. When you are a nation like China with a civilization going back 5,000 years, you have much to spread.

Confucius Goes Global

A decade ago China began opening centers abroad called Confucius Institutes to share its culture and language.

Today, there are over 300 Confucius Institutes in more than 90 countries, more than 70 of them in the U.S.  China aims to establish 1,000 Confucius Institute by 2020.

In my home state of Michigan, we have four: one each at University of Michigan, Michigan State, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. The Confucius program has been widely welcomed, not only in universities, but also in several local school districts.

The prestigious University of Michigan is the only Confucius Institute focusing solely on Chinese culture.

China’s funding for Confucius Institutes amounts to approximately $100,000-200,000 a year on many campuses, and sometimes more. The Institutes are growing rapidly, funded by the Chinese Government.  In 2013 it totaled $278 million, more than six times as much compared to 2006.

Universities and schools with tight and declining budgets due to the lingering effects of the Great Recession want to offer Chinese classes. Tight and declining budgets make them welcoming of the Chinese Yuan in order to expand educational options and to have students learn the language and culture of China – home to 1/5th of all of humanity.

Water Will Float A Boat And Can Sink It

Educators know that water will seek its own level and it is only a matter of time before China, as the second largest world economy, becomes number one. Knowing China – its customs, language, history and people – may well become the educational equivalent of a Ph.d. as the 21st century unfolds.

The Confucius Institute, affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, is committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide. Referred to as Hanban, the colloquial abbreviation for the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, the “goal is to meet the demands of foreign Chinese learners and contribute to the development of multiculturalism and the building of a harmonious world.”

Confucius Institutes are China’s equivalent to France’s Alliance Française, Germany’s Goethe Institut, or the British Council. Chinese officials hope to meet a growing global demand for Chinese-language education.

Starting in 2004, Hanban did much to open China to the world by offering a nearly fully financed trip for a week to 10 days in China for K-12 teachers and university professors. They hoped to open more eyes to China and help build educational and cultural bridges in all corners of the world.


Academic Freedom is the lifeblood and backbone of the American University system. A recent chorus of concern has risen concerning whether universities have entered into arrangements with China that might compromise their academic integrity and independence. It has been reported and feared that when a university takes the resources to establish a Confucius Institute, there is an expectation that topics sensitive to the Chinese government (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen and Uyghurs, Falun Gong, human rights or democracy) might be off limits as topics of study. Not talking about censorship, discriminatory hiring, and other infringements on academic integrity at institutions with Confucius Institutes, send shivers down the spine of the American Academy.

Some academics are calling for Confucius Institutes to hold lectures and forums on sensitive Chinese topic. The Confucius Institutes respond that this is not their focus or role.

It was reported in 2007 that Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in charge of ideology and propaganda, stated that: “The construction of Confucius Institutes is an important channel to glorify Chinese culture, to help Chinese culture spread to the world … (which is) part of China’s foreign propaganda strategy.” Critics and those fearful of China’s rise as proof of its politicized mission have seized upon this statement.

Bridges Not Walls

But in America and across the world, Confucius Institutes are building bridges rather than Great Walls to share knowledge about the history, culture and language of a rising world power which has been in the shadows. They are mysterious no longer – helping to cement  the “people-people” relationship between two great nations in hopes of shaping a 21st century world.

Is there any more important bilateral relationship in the world today than the one between the U.S. and China? Going forward, all world issues may well collide at the intersection of Washington DC and Beijing.

The Confucius Institutes have provided a focal point for people to learn about Chinese language and culture. Hundreds of these Institutes are today in nearly every corner of the globe, becoming a springboard for cultural exchange as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the citizens of the world.

Clearly the Chinese are not content to remain the factory for the world. On multiple planes, the Chinese are striving and succeeding in reclaiming their status as a cultured, educated, innovative nation. Why would they not want to share this with the world?

Let’s not forget that China once held the title of the world’s largest economy during 18 of the last twenty centuries. It stands to re-capture that title within a decade. In fact, some would argue China has already passed this milestone.

The Diplomat writes, “China has adopted various measures to enhance China’s soft power, such as establishing global news services and Confucius Institutes across the world.”

As it spreads its global wings, China looks to not only make money, but to increase its influence. Today this once inward looking nation is reaching out across all continents. While China’s economy and exchanges with the world have seen rapid growth over the last three and a half decades, there has also been a sharp increase in the world’s demand to learn more about its people, history and language.

The fear associated with China’s rise – many see a Chinese ‘boogieman’ around every corner – questions whether there is reason to fear it.  Are Confucius Institutes merely Trojan Horses that we willingly allow into our schools and universities, unleashing a propaganda virus to destroy us all?  Perhaps President Franklin D. Roosevelt was right when he reminded us during WWII, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

As China continues to awaken from its slumber, it will not be content to remain a silent movie on the world stage.  Chinese culture will continue to wash up on global shores as the 21st century unfolds.

Leadership, Language And Culture Matter

As someone who caught the Chinese bug 50 years ago and who has remained fascinated with its people and studying its culture ever since, I am pleased with the Hanban Confucius Institute investment. As Michigan’s State Superintendent of Public Education from 2001-2005, it was difficult to spark interest in China cultural and languages studies.

In the years following, the spark of interest that we did generate has been fanned by the Confucius Institutes’ investment in our schools and universities.

Michigan’s wealthy Oakland County took the lead when, at my urging, County Executive L. Brooks Patterson called for the history, culture and language to be taught in its schools. This has made his community an economic magnet for Chinese investment the past several years.

Let’s understand that not all Chinese wisdom comes from inside a fortune cookie. As Confucius reminds us, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

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