Thursday, December 2, 2010

Confucius Institutes, Soft Power, Communism?

There has been a lot of talk recently about Beijing’s “soft power”, one initiative of which is the many Confucius Institutes (272 in total) around the world. Some people in Hacienda Heights, a pretty darn Asian neighborhood to begin with – don’t take too kindly to them teaching Chinese to their children. To this phenomenon, Daily Show correspondent Aadif Mandvi was there to talk about it.

Here is a funny and absurd video about people there’s attitude towards the teaching of Chinese there. Here is the link:

The reality is that the people opposed China brainwashing scheme are not just someone like the old lady in the video, but also including those most prominent protesters of PRC influence on the educational sphere used to be part of the Red Army.

I am not saying that Kai Chen the old lady in the video aren’t extremely paranoid, but considering the very filtered view of the world people get in China which due to the Chinese government’s heavy hand on information, it is not strange to wonder if the Chinese lessons from Confucius Institutes may be washed out too.

However, on the other hand, as the nature of language, culture is an important part of it which can never be separated. As a tool of government’s soft power, those Confucius Institutes are used to spread Chinese culture for sure; however, saying that teaching Chinese language equals spreading Communist concept may be not appropriate. In the first place, Chinese culture is not Communism; the former has existed for thousands of years while the latter was a product after the WWI.

Secondly, people have their own choice to learn Chinese or not; demand always comes before supply. In other words, people choose to learn language based on their needs and interest. They choose to accept and expose themselves under the influence.
In my point of view, Chinese is just like other thousands of languages in the world. It is a little bit of paranoid to think that people are using language as a tool to get to some political aims.


  1. Thank you Skylar for your articulate remarks. The ignorance around how important the study of language and culture is can be astonishing here. When I was living in California there were debates about bilingual education (that also went on in Texas, where one man even said that if English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for him). Most other countries in the world embrace multilingual education. Here in the US, people are amazed if you speak more than one language (unless they are a person from a non-english background).
    I think an approach that would be helpful is to have our public diplomacy efforts also focus on educating our own population. Since only 17% of people in the US own a passport, clearly there is still an isolation mentality here. This does not help improve our image overseas and diminishes our credibility and soft power. The kids in the video you linked were so clearly more in tune with the realities of how learning Mandarin fit into their lives and how it could actually help the US.

  2. I think you do end up picking up some "culture" automatically when you learn to speak a language; at the very least, you may pick up behaviors that are compatible with ones you already have. But I agree that this piece, and Willow's comment above reflect a fair bit of unreasonable alarmism.

    China is most definitely not the first to suffer under this idea, nor will it be the last. I remember about 10 years ago, the crisis was about pokemon and pokemon cards, which were said to carry "Japanese" values. What those values were never seemed to be clear, but it was a threat to cultural sovereignty, and thus was going to encourage chaos, hedonism, etc., etc.

    At the core, it's ignorance which a touch of racism. Not about the culture particularly, but why someone would look outside the culture they share with the observer; something which the observer finds sufficient. Thus, if there is something missing, the observer sees it as a mark on them; they are also deficient, which makes them upset.

    I'm a big fan of South Park so the show I like to connect to in discussions like this is the "Chinpokomon" episode, which makes fun of the pokemon craze, and the idea that foreign cultures are out to brainwash Americans:

    (I have to warn you that some of the language used, like in every episode of South Park might be kind of not safe for when you're somewhere public...)

  3. I think the primary value of language instruction for public diplomacy is that it makes other, more meaningful modes of interaction possible. Once you speak Mandarin (or French, or Tagalog, or whatever) you have access to the full spectrum of the culture and society in question. This also allows public diplomacy content creators to produce content in their own language, rather than trying to come up with appropriate and relevant content in the various target languages. For example, one of my French uncles has listened to the BBC World Service on the radio for over 40 years. It's the primary way that he keeps up his English language skills, and it also regularly exposes him to British perspectives on current events. Had he not learned English as a youngster (both through school and the British Council), the BBC would not be able to reach him.

    @Willow - hahaha English was good enough for Jesus? hilarious... (and terrifying).