There is nothing soft about Chinese “soft power,” as those on the receiving end of Chinese diplomacy are realizing to their alarm. For Beijing, soft power includes a variety of elements, from pop culture and public diplomacy to heavy-handed economic and diplomatic pressure. Soft power is seen as a complement, not an antithesis, to the hard power of military capability.
The growing international concern over China’s “Confucius Institute” program, the flagship of Beijing’s Public Diplomacy, is a case in point. Confucius Institutes, seeded with funding from the Chinese government for the purpose of teaching Chinese language and culture are sprouting at an alarming rate on university campuses, including here in the United States. Wherever the People’s Republic of China establishes a presence, academic freedom is soon compromised. Concerns have been raised from the United States, to Britain, Sweden and Vietnam that inviting in Confucius Institutes also means inviting in Chinese soft power pressure.
Today the Heritage Foundation will host a program to explore “China’s Soft Power Offensive,” discussing among other issues China’s Confucius Institutes and their role in China’s bid to rival U.S. influence globally. White the United States still tops the lists of global soft power wielders, China is closing in and making massive investments.
Confucius Institutes as a concept are only a decade old, dating back to 2004. The models are America Centers, German Goethe-Institutes, British Council and the Alliance Française. However, where these are stand-alone institutions situated outside university campuses, Confucius Institutes exist within the structure, and are often incorporated into the regular curriculum, of the host school. The name of the ancient Chinese philosopher belies the decidedly Communist roots of these organizations.
Today there are more than 700 Confucius Institutes and classrooms (geared towards primary and secondary education) worldwide and more than 70 Confucius Institutes at American universities today. By contrast, China has only allowed the U.S. government to open five America Centers in China.
Not surprisingly, accepting money from China can make it difficult for universities to criticize Chinese policies, and opens the door for the Chinese government to meddle in academic affairs. Democracy Digest asked if the University of Chicago’s Confucius Institute had ever organized events on Tibetan independence or the status of Taiwan, to which Ted Foss, the associate director of its Center for East Asian Studies, admitted to certain limitations, “I can put up a picture of the Dalai Lama in this office. But on the fourth floor, we wouldn’t do that.”
Chinese diplomats have at times made their displeasure known when colleges have invited speakers that China strongly opposes. In 2010, for example, the University of Oregon came under pressure from the Chinese consul general in San Francisco to cancel a lecture by Peng Ming-Min, an advocate of Taiwanese independence.
The Chinese bid to advance its global image and build international partnerships will increasingly be in direct competition with the United States. The U.S. government must pay attention to this competition, which is coming at us domestically as well as internationally.