Confucius Institutes and the limits of attraction

Written by Falk Hartig.

By late 2015, 500 Confucius Institutes (hereafter CIs) had been established around the world and the number of Confucius Classrooms at primary and secondary schools has reached 1,000. While one has to treat those official numbers with some caution (apparently not all institutes counted in Beijing may already be in operation and others are much more a one-wo/man undertaking), these figures are remarkable, especially when compared to other cultural institutes abroad.

Not least because of the astonishing growth rate (the whole enterprise only started in 2004), it is safe to describe Confucius Institutes as the most prominent and most controversial tool of China’s public diplomacy to generate soft power, or more precisely to communicate certain images and narratives about China to the world (Barry Buzan and others have discussed the necessary distinction between soft power and public diplomacy: Buzan, 2016; Shambaugh, 2013; Rawnsley, 2012).

Even though there is an increasing academic interest in CIs, one can still find some myths about them. Having done some research on Confucius Institutes myself (Hartig, 2016), I’d like to add my take on some of these assumptions. For one, there is the understanding that the distribution patterns of Confucius Institutes (a huge number in the US and Europe, less CIs in Africa and none in North Korea, for example) “reflects both the importance of diplomatic relations and strong interests that China places in different countries” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:8).

While it is clear that China does not treat all countries diplomatically equal, this argument misses one crucial point and that is the very fact that officially international partners have to apply to establish a Confucius Institute and it is therefore somewhat misleading to describe CIs as an “aggressive cultural” initiative by the Chinese government (Zhou & Luk, 2016:14).

One reason, in my understanding, for this very uneven distribution is the simple fact that international partners have to contribute to CIs, which are most often joint ventures, as well. The CI Headquarters in Beijing provides free teaching materials and is supposed to dispatch teachers and provide parts of the funding. With regard to teachers, for example, the reality is somewhat clouded, because due to the enormous demand, there is a considerable lack of teachers in certain parts of the world, especially in the not so attractive parts of the world.

And yes, “Confucius Institutes are popular with university administrations because of generous Chinese government funding” (Scotton, 2015). The crucial point here, however, is that the funding is not that generous compared to what an international partner can get out of the deal. Yes, an international university may get several hundred thousand dollars a year. But it has to provide half of the budget (or even more), it has to provide local staff and the premises for the institute.

Overall, Confucius Institutes are not really a “cash cow” for international partners, a hope that was clearly in the minds of foreigners, especially in the early years. And here we only talk about the financial side of the deal and leave out the issues of contentual limitations which – depending on how progressive and conservative individual CIs do handle these – may have a negative effect on the reputation of international host organizations.

Another often made statement, both by CI people and some observers, is that there is an increasing degree of diversification and specialization within the CI-family. I may be wrong here, but I think this is simply not the case. There are claims that certain CIs are “research-oriented” while others are “cultural-orientated” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:4), or that some focus on food and cooking while others deal with Sports (Scotton, 2015).

It is undeniable that there is a tendency to establish “special interest” CIs: one can find CIs for Traditional Chinese Medicine (in London and Melbourne), a CI of Chinese Opera (in Binghamton, NY, USA), a CI for Dance and Performance (London), or a Tourism Confucius Institute (in Brisbane, Australia). Except for the name, I do not see a real diversification because most of those topics are addressed by many more CIs as well. Those institutes may focus on a specific topic, but I doubt that they do something unique that other CIs are not doing in one way or the other as well.

The reason for this development, in my understanding, is the simple but crucial fact that there are so many institutes (in one country, in one region, at times even in one city) so that individual CIs simply have to brand themselves as being unique. Not only to attract visitors, but apparently also to attract the attention, and therefore more or special funding, from the Headquarters.

The increasing need to attract visitors points to another and more fundamental aspect of Confucius Institutes and that is the question how successful they can be with regards to China’s soft power generation. One can, of course, question the validity of the whole idea of soft power as such. Interestingly enough, people in charge of CIs and in the Hanban tend to distance themselves from the very term (Paradise, 2009), but the senior leadership frequently refers to the term and apparently misses the point (Buzan, 2016; Shambaugh, 2013). But if we stick to the concept for a moment and understand it as the power of attraction, the question is how successful CIs can be in this regard. Some observers – without considering the conceptual issues – direct and straight forward note that CIs “fail to increase the soft power of China” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:1).

While this is a rather predicable argument, it misses two points. First, we need empirical evidence what CI visitors actually think about China. It is undeniable that more and more people are exposed to China, or a certain version of China, through Confucius Institutes. By the end of 2015 the total number of students has reached 1.9 million. Anecdotal evidence suggests that quite a number of visitors are actually impressed by traditional culture, are fascinated by Chinese language, and are actually attracted.

Those “soft power failure”-arguments furthermore ignore a more fundamental aspect altogether. In order to be attracted by China, one has to be exposed to China. In the case of Confucius Institutes this means one has to go there. This might sound simple, and maybe even naïve, but this is a crucial precondition for any public diplomacy to work. The message has to reach the audience. And this, in my understanding, is the fundamental obstacle or the “hurdle of the last three feet”, as I would term it in reference to Edward R. Murrow, the doyen of U.S. public diplomacy. Murrow noted: “It has always seemed to me the real art in [public diplomacy] is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation” (quoted in Snyder, 2013:2).

With regards to Confucius Institutes that means that people have to go there. They have to make an active decision: not going to the latest DiCaprio movie, not watching FC Barcelona or the London Philharmonic Orchestra, they have to go to a Confucius Institute, because the institute – other than the China Central Television (CCTV) for example – cannot come to the people. And normally, but this is also only based on anecdotal evidence, people go there who already have a certain positive interest in China or are at least open-minded enough to go there.

Someone who – for whatever reason – perceives China as the evil empire will normally not visit a Confucius Institute and change his or her mind. In a sense Confucius Institutes, and other public diplomacy initiatives as well, are mainly preaching to the converted.

Falk Hartig is a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University, Frankfurt and author of Chinese Public Diplomacy: The Rise of the Confucius Institute (Routledge, 2016). Image credit: CC by UCL Institute of Education/Flickr.


Paradise, James (2009) ‘China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power’, Asian Survey 49(4): 647–669.
Rawnsley, Gary (2012) ‘Approaches to Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in China and Taiwan’, Journal of International Communication 18(2): 121–35.
Shambaugh, David (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snyder, James (2013) The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zhou Ying and Luk, Sabrina (2016) ‘Establishing Confucius Institutes: a tool for promoting China’s soft power?’, Journal of Contemporary China, online first.


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