Civic ties help shape China's soft power

Updated: 2012-02-10 09:34

By Ann Lee (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Languages can act as important carriers of culture, communication

China is trying to build not only business connections across the world, but also civic ties. It has invited and sponsored thousands of African students to study in China to learn Mandarin. China also actively invites academicians from all nations to exchange ideas with their Chinese counterparts.

While teaching at Peking University, I met dozens of local professors, as well as those who traveled from every corner of the earth to be there, either to teach, research, or both. There was a professor from Greece, who was invited to help the Chinese restore their dilapidating national treasures.

As a matter of fact, during my teaching stint there, the Chinese facilitated more meetings than I have ever encountered during my time teaching at American universities.

More recently, China has opened Confucius Institutes (CIs) around the world. Like the Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise, and Instituto Cervantes, CIs were launched as an effort to bridge the cultural misunderstandings between the East and West. Given the strong influence these values have in Chinese culture, CIs were initially conceived to educate those who have not been exposed to the writings or philosophy of Confucius.

However, in response to assertions from some Western critics that the Chinese were using CI as a propaganda tool, most CIs today have limited their offerings mainly to Mandarin-speaking instruction. Nonetheless, the language outreach alone can stimulate a growing interest in China.

Despite the controversy, China has opened 316 CIs and 337 Confucius Classrooms in 94 countries and regions as of July 2010. Starting with the first CI piloted in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in June 2004, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, otherwise known as Hanban, currently has plans to set up 1,000 CIs by 2020 and award as many as 3,000 scholarships to foreign candidates to study Chinese teaching by 2013.

True to its goal of spreading cultural understanding, each CI must be affiliated with a host university or cultural institution, with the partner required to match funding from Hanban.

The United States has also used this form of soft power very well by admitting international graduate students into top American universities for decades. In the process, many young Chinese have become similar to young Americans, who love to consume American products, adopt American dress and have American ideals.

But since 9/11, entry by foreigners has been curbed with immigration laws becoming tougher, thereby somewhat blunting the influence of American soft power.

China's soft power is not only coming from official diplomatic channels. Its average citizens have also been ambassadors for the country. Chinese laborers worked alongside African laborers, showing the Africans solidarity rather than superiority. Many Chinese students have gone abroad to study, and in the United States, many of the PhDs in the hard sciences have consistently been Chinese foreign nationals. According to the National Opinion Research Center, China was the country of origin for the largest number of non-US born doctorates.

Wherever the Chinese diaspora land, much evidence, anecdotal as well as statistical, confirms that the Chinese tend to become productive members of society without the help of affirmative action. In these cases and others, average Chinese civilians engage in public diplomacy as citizen role models.

The author is a senior fellow at the think tank Demos and a professor of finance and economics at New York University. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 02/10/2012 page7)