The Role and Impact of ‘Soft Power’

The cultural and pedagogic rationale for the establishment of the Confucius Institutes is understood and acknowledged. There is a broad general appreciation of the role of the national cultural institutes such as Cervantes, the Goethe-Institut or their counterparts and the positive roles they have played over many years in promoting their language and culture and making them accessible to broad sections of society. For many, Confucius Institutes fulfil the same function.

But the expansion of Confucius Institutes has also been viewed from other perspectives. There has been widespread comment and debate about the ‘soft power’ rationale for Confucius Institutes and the impact of this on policy and practice in their operations. ‘Soft power’ as defined by Joseph Nye Jr (2004, p. 34) ‘is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments’ and Nye’s work has focused on how this has developed in general and with application to China. The aims of Chinese policy in public and cultural diplomacy in the period following ‘opening up’ focused on the enhancement of the image of China. This included a variety of strategies such as promoting the attractions and appeal of China across many spheres including culture, cultural heritage, travel to the country itself, civilization and of course language. A greater understanding and appreciation of China and its ancient and contemporary culture and values can be achieved through such measures (Hartig 2012; Hartig 2011; Yang 2010; Hsiao 2008).

These aims, in a very short space of time and following a long period of Chinese closure to the outside world, have been broadly successful. More and more people are interested in learning Mandarin and discovering Chinese culture which in turn inspires them to travel and study in China. Interest in Chinese culture and its language has soared. A seemingly worldwide fascination has sometimes been referred to as China Fever (Zhang 2007). One of the achievements, as stated earlier, has been to create a brand and a focus for China and Chinese language and culture which are identifiable and give strong visibility. The worldwide expansion of Confucius Institutes has played a significant role in bringing this about.

Parallel to the debate on ‘soft power’ and China, there has also been discussion on political and ideological issues in respect of Confucius Institutes. These are frequently the subject of comment and at times controversy. In a much-cited article on the development of Confucius Institutes Chinese Language Education in Europe: the Confucius Institutes, Starr (2009, p. 78) points out that ‘Criticism of the Confucius Institutes tends to fall into two categories: insiders with practical concerns, and outsiders with ideological concerns.’

The internal concerns include a focus on issues such as policies on teacher recruitment and conditions, teacher shortages, sustainability and finance, pedagogic materials, localization strategies, whether Confucius Institutes should teach credit-bearing courses or not, testing policies and others. The ideological issues which have given rise to controversy have included areas such as academic freedom within Confucius Institutes, the role of the Confucius Institute in the host university structure, academic standing, censorship, teacher independence, relations with Chinese partners, the nature of government links and others.

Consideration of both internal and external concerns will continue to attract attention and comment. External concerns are significant and important to monitor. However, while a considerable amount has already been written about these topics, not enough has been written about the internal practical, pedagogical issues including modes of teaching, effectiveness of teaching or methodology and evaluation. Given the substantial number of staff and students now engaged in teaching and learning Chinese, a focus on this aspect is overdue.

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