Written by Sheng Ding.

The political effects of language acquisition, culture exchange, and education contact are important in respect to soft power appeal, and have received growing attention from policy-makers around the world. Indeed, those who will be impacted most by the appeal of a country’s soft power are the people who can speak its language and understand its culture. While learning a foreign language, international learners will have better opportunities to communicate with native speakers and observe the political and social events of the particular country. Such language acquisition processes will impart cultural and political values to international learners, learners who can then help to present the country’s appeal of soft power to the outside world. Therefore, it is in the interests of public diplomacy to promote the country’s language and culture among targeted audiences. 

As China continues with its economic modernisation, the expansion of its share of world trade, and the honing of its diplomatic prowess, the value of the Chinese language increases. Today, the Chinese language is more than just the language associated with the country’s ancient civilisation and oriental philosophical thought; it is also a fast-developing commercial lingua franca in the Asia Pacific. Obviously, the invaluable role of promoting the Chinese language in China’s public diplomacy has not been lost on the Chinese leadership. Beijing has formulated and implemented a sophisticated multi-level strategy to popularise the Chinese language (i.e., Mandarin Chinese) around the world, systematically and on a massive scale.

First, as an important policy initiative in its education reform, Beijing promulgated the Studying in China Scheme in September 2010. The scheme aims to advance the internationalisation of China’s education system and enhance the country’s attractiveness to international students. According to Beijing’s official in charge of China’s international education cooperation and exchanges, the ultimate goal of the Studying in China Scheme is to develop Chinese soft power and to promote China’s political values, in particular, the Chinese concept of Harmonious World, to the outside world. Beijing wants to recruit 500,000 international students to study in China by 2020 with the aim of 150,000 recruits being degree-seeking students. If achieved, this will make China the largest international education hub in Asia. Against this backdrop, China’s uptick in soft power will be sustained by becoming an increasingly popular host country for international students.

Second, Beijing’s efforts to promote the Chinese language and Chinese culture hinge on the 51 million overseas Chinese who have become the indispensable platform for Beijing’s public diplomacy. Many host countries of a large number of overseas Chinese people, such as Australia and New Zealand, expect Chinese to become the most valuable business language — other than English — in the near future. In Singapore, Mandarin Chinese is vigorously promoted by its political leadership as a way to enhance greater ties across Southeast Asia and to make Singapore the regional hub. In addition, China’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and its subordinates at all levels of government have collaborated with various overseas Chinese communal organisations to organise multiple language acquisition and cultural exchange programmes for younger overseas Chinese people. Such public diplomacy tactics, built on the close cultural and language bonds between overseas Chinese people and their motherland, have already made significant headway in the local culture and society of many global cities. Indeed, from Jakarta to Seoul and on to Vancouver and New York, surging interest in studying Chinese language and culture has become the best gauge of the appeal of Chinese soft power.

More importantly, recognising the centrality of the language in increasing cultural attractiveness, Beijing has introduced a series of initiatives to promote the study and research of Chinese around the world. The National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, Hanban, was established in 1987 to coordinate China’s efforts to promote the Chinese language and Chinese culture around the world. The two most important programmes of Hanban are the Confucius Institutes (CIs), which target foreign universities and colleges, and Confucius Classrooms (CCs), which target secondary and even primary schools. They have unabashedly served as the global-local keystone for China’s commercial, cultural, and linguistic proselytisation. To a great extent, the spread of CIs and CCs have forged strategic alliances with businesses, industries, governments, and other institutions with an interest in closer and more productive ties with China and the Chinese diaspora. As of the end of 2014, there were 475 CIs and 851 CCs around the world. According to the data posted in the Hanban’s official web site, the two largest concentration regions of CIs and CCs are Europe (149 CIs and 153 CCs) and North America (113 CIs and 374 CCs), and among the countries hosting more than ten CIs, all of them with the exception of Thailand are in developed regions. Such a distribution of CIs and CCs reflects not only new development in Chinese emigration but also new changes in Beijing’s public diplomacy strategy. As more and more Chinese emigrants settle in North America, Europe, and advanced countries in Pacific Asia, Beijing’s efforts to utilise the Chinese language as a means of conducting public diplomacy have become more and more selective in order to advance the country’s economic interests and international influence.

Beijing has made good progress in developing its soft power related to bolstering the Chinese language and in enhancing its capability to convert such soft power resources into desired policy outcomes. However, Beijing’s Chinese language-related public diplomacy still faces some major hurdles. First, Beijing’s efforts to promote the Chinese language and Chinese culture could be overshadowed by China’s long history of dominance in East Asia. China’s ascendancy as a cultural power is sometimes perceived as threatening by its neighbours. Second, Beijing’s increasingly assertive and nationalistic foreign policy could jeopardise public diplomacy efforts which focus on the country’s cultural attractiveness. Third, Beijing’s public diplomacy in popularising the Chinese language and culture cannot become a fig leaf for its lack of political legitimacy. Without real political reform and the rule of law, Beijing will find limits to conducting its Chinese language-related public diplomacy and projecting the appeal of Chinese soft power.

Sheng Ding is Professor of Political Science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Image Credit: CC by Michael Davis-Burchat/Flickr.