In January of 2014, I returned to China for the first time since 2011. At the invitation of universities and NGOs, I gave 10 talks on China Going Global in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Chengdu, sharing my experiences and observations as a freelance reporter who has been investigating both Chinese overseas investment as well as the challenges and conflicts in Africa and Latin America. To my surprise, I found out that the level of interest in Africa and China-Africa issues has already grown substantially in China, especially among young Chinese, despite the fact that public knowledge of this subject is very limited.
Inspired by my findings, since returning to Kenya, I have been working on the China House Project, a new project that is challenging and potentially more impactful than Journalism Works.
“When the people are right, the world is right.” This is how I view the China-Africa relationship. The challenges facing Chinese investment in Africa are directly tied to the Chinese people on the ground in Africa. The local challenges I reported on including labor issues, environmental destruction, poor communication, and insufficient localization most relate to the Chinese people involved. These Chinese are close-minded, relatively older, lacking a sufficient international background, and largely profit-driven.
Therefore, if we were to change the composition of the Chinese people working in Africa by bringing in more Chinese who can adapt to the local environment and who can recognize that their own development is closely linked to that of Africa’s, would the situation improve? If we bring more Chinese who appreciate Africa, could we better ensure the sustainable development of Chinese investment in Africa, both for China and for the world?
This thinking marked the early stages of China House. We sought to bring in different Chinese people in an attempt to change the makeup of existing Chinese communities in Africa.
Through a recruitment process, we select young, open-minded, idealistic yet pragmatic Chinese from China or international universities as “China House Fellows.” We then help them settle in China House in Nairobi. China House Fellows research Chinese investment and Africa, work on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects for Chinese companies in Africa, report on China-Africa issues, and participate in volunteer and social programs. Regardless of what they do, China House ties them together with the same vision and organizes events regularly with other Chinese and non-Chinese in Kenya.
By doing so, we are filling many existing gaps. On the research side, most Chinese researchers lack first-hand experience since they are usually not Africa-based. Most non-Chinese, Africa-based researchers cannot access Chinese information. Thus, we are able to overcome these challenges. On the CSR side, Chinese companies are trying to expand CSR in Africa but they need to consult agencies to help implement programs. On the media side, existing Chinese reporting about Africa and Chinese overseas investment lacks both in quantity and quality due to the absence of a market-driven Chinese media presence in Africa. On the NGO side, there are almost no Chinese NGOs in Africa despite the strong demand from both the Chinese and locals.
Our research projects have only just begun. We just undertook an important CSR project from a Chinese state-owned enterprise in Kenya and the first group of China House Fellows are arriving soon. While so many uncertainties and difficulties face us, we are confident that this initiative is going to make a significant difference.
Can younger and more open-minded Chinese people in Africa positively impact the China-Africa relationship going forward? Would a Chinese NGO/social enterprise focusing on China-Africa offer new opportunities for development? We believe so, and we are working on it.
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After studying in the United States for seven years, I was once again sitting at my grandmother’s table in Beijing. In front of me lay the dishes she had prepared for my visit: a steamed carp, laced with strands of cilantro; julienne potatoes stir-fried with green pepper; sautéed celery slices; braised pork cubes and eggs.
“When are you going back to America this time?” Grandma asked, placing a piece of fish on my plate.
“I’m staying this time.”
She raised her eyebrows.
I told her I hoped to do freelance writing in China and be close to home after all the years abroad. She nodded, but then shook her head.
“I wouldn’t have returned if I were you.”
Grandma peppered me with questions as I nibbled on the fish. What was I working on? What was the reporting process like? Did I take China’s side? She was once a journalist herself, having worked for state-owned newspapers from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s.
I told her I was writing about the strike at Southern Weekend, a liberal Chinese newspaper, after state censors meddled with an editorial last winter. “The censorship at the paper has always been very severe,” I said. “Frankly, I’m surprised the reporters put up with it for so long. If I were one of them…”
Grandma cut me off. “Of course you are surprised. You’ve been abroad too long,” she snapped, putting down her chopsticks with a clatter. “This is just the way Chinese journalism works. Do you understand? China is not America!”
I opened my mouth to explain, but Grandma went on. The words “superior,” “ignorant,” and “half-American” flew by my ears. I kept my eyes on my plate and ate the fish, trying hard to swallow.
I left China for the first time in 2005, at the age of 17, to attend high school in the United States. I quickly realized that my homeland, when viewed from the outside, looked very different from what I was familiar with.
In the United States media, Taiwan was its own country. The Tiananmen massacre was better known among my American peers than my Chinese friends. As a native of China, I faced constant questioning: Do you think the one-child policy is necessary? Why are the Chinese so incensed about the Diaoyu Islands? What was the Chinese government doing to ease ethnic tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet?
I tried to reply, searching for answers in my mind, but felt as if I were scraping the inside of an empty Nutella jar with a butter knife. So I hit the library, poring over documents and books written by both Chinese and Westerners. Slowly, my understanding of China evolved into something resembling a chaotic Impressionist painting: News and views from West and East juxtaposed each other like clashing colors and shapes, refusing to form a neat image.
But it was an image I was eager to share with friends and family at home when I returned to China two years ago.
One night at dinner, my mother, an editor in chief at a state publishing house, mentioned a new book she was planning to publish. “It is about the Jews,” she explained, “and reveals the secret behind their entrepreneurial success.”
Her words made me uneasy. I had often heard Chinese talking about Jews in similarly generalized terms. Carefully, I pointed out that the book’s idea sounded like a form of racial stereotyping.
“Chinese people talk like this all the time, and you know it,” my mother replied, throwing me an impatient look. “It’s not considered offensive in China.”
“But should China have its own standard for racial sensitivity?” I asked. “It doesn’t seem right to hold assumptions toward races anywhere in the world. In America, my friends don’t —”
“Just because they do it in America, it doesn’t mean we have to do the same in China,” she interrupted, raising her voice. “The years you spent in America have got those ideas into your head, and now everything in China seems wrong to you!”
I forget how I responded, but I remember the suffocating silence in the room afterward.
Often, I find conversations about China with Chinese relatives and friends trickier to navigate than those with American acquaintances. In America, my firsthand perspective of China gave me credibility and strengthened my stories and arguments. But here in China, my time spent in America seems only to have alienated me from others. If I say something critical, it is often taken not as social commentary but as a sign of shifted loyalty, of contempt for my homeland, of uncritical worship of all things American.
Wounded by such misunderstandings, I babble in self-defense. I point out that my complaints echo those of many Chinese about air pollution, food safety, news censorship, corruption and so on. In fact, these gripes dominate discussions on Chinese social media. But such reasoning is usually of little help. The evening after my exchange with Grandma about censorship, my mother sat me down in the living room. “Don’t talk about Chinese journalism like that in front of Grandma in the future,” she said.
“But Grandma complains about it all the time,” I muttered.
“Grandma can complain about it,” she said, looking in my eyes. “But it’s not the same when you do.”
When I left China in 2005, my teachers, classmates and relatives bid me farewell with a nudge. “You will come back after finishing school, right?” they asked. “To develop your motherland,” they joked, before adding more seriously: “Plus, you will surely have a brighter future here.”
But when I saw them again after returning, many seem puzzled. “Why did you come back?” they ask. “Couldn’t you find a way to stay?”
Chinese are leaving their country in droves. Students, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, celebrities, pregnant mothers — it seems everyone is trying to get away. They land on the campuses of New England universities, in Silicon Valley offices and Manhattan condos, in hospital beds in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those who stay grumble about the exodus while speaking of the United States in rapt fascination.
“I hear Americans can go to hospitals for free. The health care system covers it all!”
“Everybody in America can get a job, even without a college degree. Isn’t that the case?”
A friend burdened with debt to buy an apartment outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road described the better fortune of her cousin in Virginia and sighed. “She bought a house just four years after graduating from college, and she’s only a middle-school teacher!”
If I spoke of the United States this way, friends would glare in offense. I now tread carefully, avoiding out-of-context comments about China or the United States that might upset people. But sometimes, when confronted with rosy depictions of life in the United States, I can’t help but trying to present a more nuanced picture.
If my American friends inundated me with questions about China, though, my Chinese friends are usually less curious about the subtleties of life in the United States. When I try to explain the problems with American health insurance or school testing, their eyes begin to wander. After telling my friend with the cousin in Virginia about property taxes, she replied, “What do I need to know that for. In China, you can’t even afford the down payment!”
I gradually realized what was happening. Like someone gazing out a window but staring only at his own reflection, many Chinese look at America in ways that are colored by their feelings toward China. The United States they see — a nation with a pristine environment, perfect schools, generous welfare and complete political transparency — is a figment of their imagination, custom-made in stark contrast to the reality we live in. This is what makes my comments about China or the United States so grating for them: The same hopes and anxieties for China that lay behind their idealized notions of America also heightened their sensitivity to criticism of China from outsiders. And that is how they saw me. The years I spent in the United States, it seems, had served only to deepen the sting of my words.
I once joined old friends at a high school reunion in mocking President Xi Jinping’s flashy campaign to curtail government waste. My opinions echoed theirs, but one classmate quickly turned on me. “In America, of course you don’t need this. But this is China. This is how things have to start,” he said, though a few minutes earlier he had derided the campaign as “a big show” staged by the authorities.
I stayed silent the rest of the meal. Before it ended, the classmate approached with a question. “I heard about something,” he said. “I heard you can buy a large house in a nice suburb on the East Coast for just $200,000. Is that true?”
Not long ago, Grandma showed me an essay she wrote in 1984. The piece reminisced about her days at The Hunan Daily, the newspaper where she started her journalistic career in the 1950s. Then a bright-eyed, plucky girl in her early 20s, she was assigned to report on the “new scenes of rural prosperity since the Great Liberalization.” For three years, she roamed the province, visiting ethnic minority villages tucked in the mountains and interviewing veterans who had fought against the invading Japanese forces. The headline was in bold: “I Was the Rough Country Girl.”
I suggested to Grandma that she put more of her remembrances in writing. But she demurred, complaining that Mao-era bureaucratese clogged her pen the moment it touched paper. She said her dark memories of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would not find an audience in today’s China.
I assured her that I was eager to read about them. I told her my friends in America would be too. Perhaps I could translate her writing into English…
Her face sank at the suggestion. “Why should I be writing for foreigners? What could they possibly understand? I can’t believe you even proposed that!”
“That’s not what I meant,” I blurted out. A wave of words rolled in my chest and tumbled to the tip of my tongue. I looked at Grandma. The corner of her mouth twitched. Deep furrows lined her forehead. I held my tongue.
Helen Gao writes an occasional column on overseas education for cn.nytimes.com, the Chinese-language website of The New York Times. This piece is adapted from a column published shortly after the Lunar New Year in 2013.
(Note from the editor: This article is cross-posted from the Sinosphere blog of The New York Times with the author’s permission. )
Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish. – Confucius
On the surface, Sino-African relations in trade and investment look incredibly successful, but there underlies a challenge that prevents Chinese firms from achieving greater success: an increasing disharmony.
The concept of “harmony” is of the utmost importance in Chinese thought, as found in both the ancient writings of Confucius and the more recent “harmonious society” theory put forward by former Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The good news: Series of “disharmonious” events like these have driven many Chinese companies to step up their show-and-tell efforts on corporate social responsibility (CSR) through reports, media and conferences.
The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin. – Confucius
When I consider Chinese companies, it strikes me that a CSR approach should build on this national value of harmony. This approach would align Chinese corporations’ CSR practices with Confucian philosophies emphasizing positive relationships between individuals as well as between humans and the environment. This foundation could help Chinese companies mitigate risk, ensure long-term business sustainability, and benefit local communities as much as their own financial success.
There are three keys to ensuring successful implementation of the “harmony approach” for Chinese CSR: a scalable CSR plan, community involvement and greater publicity for their efforts.
1. A scalable plan
Currently, Chinese CSR efforts in Africa are generally scattershot. Companies often donate money or equipment to communities in need, but these actions are not done in an easily replicable or efficient manner. With a country or region-wide CSR plan (based on the company’s or employees’ existing skills), however, the company would incorporate experience and efficiency in its CSR work. This would not only encourage more CSR activity and facilitate its execution, but provide the company with a built-in narrative to explain its CSR work and improve its reputation.
2. Community involvement
Chinese CSR efforts also have tended to suffer from a lack of local community participation. In order for CSR efforts to be sustainable, they must respond to what the local community feels it needs, rather than what outsiders may perceive. By reaching out to community members and bringing them into the planning process, Chinese companies will gain respect and understanding even before the CSR work comes to fruition.
3. Greater publicity
Finally, Chinese CSR efforts have traditionally been very under-promoted. Many firms may feel uncomfortable talking up their community outreach work, and may, at most, put out a press release. A more extensive and creative public relations approach, especially one that includes interviews with local media and other outside sources, could help Chinese firms build stronger relationships with communities and governments crucial to their success. And wider promotion of CSR work would set a powerful example and encourage others—all while contributing to the reputation of “China, Inc.”
Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs. – Confucius
There is a clear need for economic development in the African community, and Chinese companies have the resources to help Africa grow. CSR work may just provide the key to a harmonious future for the Chinese in Africa.
Therefore, I am increasingly confident that now is the time for Chinese companies in Africa to embrace a new CSR approach—one that works better for local communities while honoring an essential tenet of Chinese culture: harmony.
Evan Roe is a research analyst at AMGlobal Consulting, a boutique firm that specializes in emerging markets.
I was recently in Beijing attending the Second International Forum on Private Enterprise Heritage & China’s Influence at Peking University. The event was organized by HSBC Business School, Peking University, the Magazine of Global People, People’s Daily and Sage International.
Twelve international guests were in attendance including a princess from Nepal, a Saudi prince, two British delegates as well as Mr. Simon Jones, a reputation guru at Chime Communications PLC. Simon was insightful on advising how great reputations are made by embedding values within the enterprise.
There were over 300 Chinese entrepreneurs in attendance with many being newly minted dollar millionaires along with several billionaires. The demographic of the Chinese entrepreneurs that I spoke with in the group sessions and while networking in the hall appeared to be fixed within the age bracket of 25 – 45.
I noticed that entrepreneurs from Tier-2 to 5 cities asked specific questions about real estate and heavy industry. Entrepreneurs from the cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin were more focused on 3D printing, electric cars, advanced robotics and financial services. But what all of them shared was a keen desire to hear more about opportunities outside mainland China.
I don’t do business cards as I meet far too many people. I like selective networking, knowing who is in the room before I enter and having a clear strategy and objective. I don’t throw darts at a wall; time is too valuable.
“You can get on the table with anyone if you put your mind to it. No one is unreachable.”
As I had no business cards, I connected in advance of these events via Sina Weibo and WeChat. I’d definitely recommend joining both platforms, as WeChat now has 280 million monthly active users around the world, and Sina Weibo has over 60 million daily active users in China, while Twitter, Facebook and even LinkedIn are challenging to access in China.
The Chinese Dream
The “Chinese Dream,” envisaged by Mr. Xi Jinping, Chinese president and general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), is among the greatest dreams of the Chinese nation since 1840. Achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a glorious and arduous cause that will require the endeavors of generations of Chinese to come.
In the past two decades, China has gained growing influence on the international stage, as the world has witnessed new challenges requiring economic, social and environmental changes. These challenges are for every country and every actor in the world to embrace. But maybe more than anyone else, with its newly gained influence, China is shouldering a new responsibility to contribute and to lead this transformation. Private companies, in particular, will be an important engine in this transformation.
Reports show that around three million entrepreneurs will hand over their businesses to successors in the coming five to 10 years, which will be a pivotal social and economic transition point after “Reform and Opening Up.” Second-generation Chinese entrepreneurs are faced with immense challenges, including how to sustain success, how to maintain—or even go beyond—growth. A cultural understanding, a sense of responsibility and a set of universal values are what these new entrepreneurs should be equipped with in the face of new reality when transformation is well under its way.
“To get rich is glorious.” — Deng Xiaoping
Chinese business culture attaches great value to the belief that man is an integral part of nature, and regards the whole world as an inseparable union. Accordingly, the business sector has to achieve sustained and green growth, nurturing back traditional human-centric business values.
It is in the global interest to promote long-term, balanced growth of China’s economy, and to develop a more international business culture with a global ecological awareness within the country. International experts need to work and exchange best practices with Chinese government officials and entrepreneurs to allow China to exert the best of its influence.
“What do you want? Ivory? Blackwood? Rhino horns? Cheap!” In South Africa and Mozambique, all the black street vendors I met could say these words in Chinese.
The Praça 25 de Junho (June 25th Plaza) opens on Saturdays only in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. Black and white people pass through and street vendors eagerly explain the meaning of African fabric painting, revealing the delicate and exquisite workmanship behind their culture. But when Chinese people pass through, those few painting stall artists become tired of chatting up potential buyers. Instead, other street vendors rush in excitedly, calling the Chinese over to let them take a look inside their treasure boxes full of ivory products including chopsticks, stamp seals, ornaments and carvings — these things the vendors never show to other tourists because they are not interested. With the influx of Chinese people coming to Africa, street vendors have slowly figured out what the Chinese want and what they don’t want.
One African street vendor shared this observation with me: “Chinese people generally buy ivory, blackwood and some other animal products made of tortoiseshells, sheep and cattle horns, and so on.”
But why? Why is there such a difference? I understand Chinese travelers have a custom of giving people souvenirs, but why must it be these things? For the time being, I’ll keep searching for an answer.
“Everybody buys these things…the other things don’t make sense to us,” Mr. Wang, an employee at a Chinese construction company in Maputo, told me this. At the time, I turned to ask a shop owner about the price of a finely handcrafted shell and Mr. Wang indicated that he didn’t know the market prices of these kinds of objects. On the other hand, he was very comfortable discerning authentic ivory products from fake ones, and could estimate their prices depending on quality. He told me he wasn’t really aware of the other items and most Chinese people he met didn’t know about them or even want to find out.
“Chinese people have stepped out [of China], but very few have stepped in [Africa],” A Chinese journalist stationed in Africa told me this.
This “stepping in” refers to a desire to understand the local history and culture, to display interest in studying the local conditions, to show the enthusiasm necessary to make local friends, and to share a common interest in Africa’s development. It should be based on genuine passion for Africa itself and not on profit-seeking.
Why is it then that when Chinese people leave China and come to Africa, they do not really go in to Africa?
So far, this is what I understand about this question: First, there is a huge understanding gap between the general public of China and Africa; a major reason for this is the absence of a media presence. China tends to look more inwardly than outwardly. When it comes to “international perspectives,” they are usually associated with developed countries and regions like Europe, the U.S., and Japan. With regards to other developing countries, Chinese people don’t know much about them, and there’s also lack of interest in understanding them.
In this way, the lack of information from the media leads to a continued gap in understanding: Media outlets like Southern Weekly, Caixin, Sina and Tencent, have not had the funding and capability to send reporters or to establish a reporting bureau in Africa. Other Chinese media outlets that have enormous resources, like CCTV, Xinhua News Agency, and People’s Daily, etc., are in Africa, but they’re not fully competent. Most of them function as outlets for self-serving propaganda, with more reporting on events such as Hu Jintao’s visit to the U.S. They are not necessarily committed to strengthening the communication between Africa and China. Consider the staff: you might find out that few of these Chinese journalists stationed in Africa are actually interested in knowing Africa; few even truly like Africa. If Chinese people gaze at Africa without interest and passion, then how can you expect them to report on Africa with understanding and compassion for audiences from far away? One out-of-the-ordinary reporter once told me: “China has no journalists specializing in African reporting except for me.” It’s a shame that I think his claim is true.
Second, it is a real pity that despite the large population of my country, there is such a scarcity of “global citizens.” The so-called “internationalization” should not be equated with saying that you studied abroad in England or America. Internationalism depends on whether you have an open mind, a broad vision, how you make friends, and it also depends on your global footprint.
When I was studying in New York, many Chinese students and I probably had the same feelings: The outstanding students from the United States and European countries would make comments like “the situation in the Congo is…,” “when I was in Haiti, I saw…,”, or “the problem in Latin America is…” They were all very concerned about all aspects of the world. Moreover, they had already traveled to many countries. In comparison, the most outstanding students from China’s Tsinghua, Peking and Fudan Universities, would say nothing but “the situation in our country China is…”
If China’s most outstanding young students are like this, and the public’s perception of working in Africa is far from ideal, then what do you think the majority of the Chinese people in Africa are actually like?
“If a person can get by in China, he or she will not come to Africa,” a small Chinese business owner in Mozambique told me. After he lost his family and career to gambling, he went straight from Jiangsu to Angola, one of the unstable countries in Africa at the time. Not able to speak English, he went ahead and began studying Portuguese. He also started to make a living doing odd jobs and built up his own nest egg. Such an experience speaks to the living conditions of his fellow Chinese workers.
“Right now it’s really hard to find a job [in China]. I came here just because being sent to Africa can make me a little more cash,” said Xiao Li, who had just finished his undergraduate studies and was sent to work for an enterprise in Mozambique. He graduated from a second-tier college where he didn’t study English well. He had never expected to come to Africa before graduation, a reality shared by his fellow Chinese students.
Finally, a certain mindset hindered China’s own “stepping in.”
The most dreadful mindset is that of development and backwardness. The majority of Chinese people currently support the notion of European and American modernization; they believe that the progress of civilization moves forward in one direction and that Africa’s development has fallen behind the development of places like New York, Paris or Shanghai. The less educated and more narrow-minded person will tend to have such a viewpoint. These kinds of people cannot see that there are more dimensions to civilization; they especially forget well-known sayings like “you lose some, you gain some.” When they come to Africa, their eyes are glued to Africa’s lack of shopping malls, subway systems and skyscrapers. However, they overlook Africa’s unique treasures: the fresh air filling the azure sky, the green trees and the big birds like egrets that live in those trees on the street, the starfish and hermit crabs everywhere on the beach, the happy-go-lucky people not trapped by working overtime, the grasslands with non-caged lions and the absence of desertification, the high mountains with untouched corners to explore, and those rich and diverse traditional tribal cultures…
With such perceptions of Africa, many Chinese build high walls to protect their homes and to close themselves off. We should ask, in this way, how can the Chinese blend in with the locals? How will the Chinese realize that the wild elephants in Africa need to be preserved?
Also, I recall an interesting observation: When you tell a European or American person, “I’m going to Africa,” their reaction often is: “That’s great!” When you tell a Chinese person, “I’m going to Africa,” their reaction usually is: “Why on earth are you going to that kind of place?”
We have closed ourselves off so much that we turn our noses up at Africa and see it as nothing but an uncivilized place to earn money. It seems that we don’t have a clue about what Africa has to offer other than ivory and rhino horns.
“If you like ivory, why not come directly to Africa to see the living elephants then?” Puzzled, a local friend asked me this.
This investigation by the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalists was supported by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters and the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project.
As governments and citizens compile more and more information, big and open data is becoming the new normal in the West, as is the case in the U.S. China, on the other hand, seems to look at open data with both curiosity and hesitation:
“Why do we need to open data in China?” Some ask.
I don’t have the the right answer to the question, but I’d like to ask back: “Why not?”
Without open data, citizens in Yunnan province government would’ve had less easy ways to examine how cancer cases and water quality may be connected in the emergence of “cancer village.”
Without open data, Chinese people and foreign investors alike would have needed to try harder to get the whole picture of air, soil and water pollution across the country.
Without open data, would China have been better off?
These cases and thoughts over a growing momentum on open data in China are part of what was discussed during a China Open Mic hangout with Rebecca Chao, associate director TechPresident, a blog that looks at how technology is changing civil society and governance. I’m tempted to call her “an avid hunter for open data in China.”
China’s Confucius Institutes are multiplying across each region of the globe. Don’t fret though. It’s for the best.
On November 21, 2004, the first Confucius Institute opened its doors in Seoul, South Korea. The placement was by design, like every aspect of this public diplomacy endeavor by an increasingly confident Chinese government. The Korean peninsula, for example, has a long history of adhering to the Confucian system of thought, society and governance. Even more symbolically, before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, Korea was a part of China’s traditional cultural empire. In fact, it was the last part to fall. As it often does, the Chinese government was looking back as a means of presenting its new forward momentum. It considered the Seoul Confucius Institute as its first step back, as Don Starr put it, into the “first-world club after a century of semi-colonial status and 50 years of third world membership.” China was sending a message to the world that it had returned as a major power.
In the years since, China’s economy grew from being the fifth largest in the world to now just trailing the U.S., a temporary position if projections are to be believed. This rapid rise has been perceived as a threat to much of the world despite overtures of “peace and development” and “a harmonious world” by Chinese leaders, including Hu Jintao, the President of the People’s Republic of China from 2003 to 2013. As they pursue increasingly ambitious roles in regional leadership and international institution-building as well as further modernization and assimilation into the global community, the Chinese government is turning to the exploitation of traditional strategic culture as a means of soft power. The Confucius Institute, modeled after similar institutions like France’s Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe-Institut, is a channel for spreading that message.
According to the official website, the Confucius Institute model—originally designed, managed and funded by the Chinese government—was established to serve a number of objectives: to develop Chinese language courses for various social sectors; to train Chinese language instructors for local institutions and provide them with Chinese language resources; to establish local facilities for the holding of HSK exams (the official Chinese proficiency test) and for the administration of procedures for the Chinese language teacher certification; to provide information and consulting services concerning Chinese education, culture, economy, and society; and to promote research about contemporary China.
The expansion of Confucius Institutes has run parallel to the growth of China’s economy and global prestige. There are now—as of July 2013—327 Confucius Institutes in more than 90 countries and regions. Administering the Confucius Institutes is the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Guojia Hanyu Guoji Tuiguang Lingdao Xiaozu Bangongshi), known by its abbreviation, Hanban. It is a non-profit public organization that is governed by a group whose members derive from state ministries, including the State Council, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Culture. This affiliation to the Chinese government leaves the Confucius Institutes open to criticism. Confucius Institutes established with the joint venture model—a partnership between Hanban, a Chinese university and a foreign university—are especially prone to concerns about academic freedom. If topics sensitive to the Chinese government—Tibet, Taiwan, China’s military, Falun Gong—were raised in the Confucius Institute on the University of Kentucky’s campus, for example, would the students and teachers be allowed to engage?
These concerns were fully vocalized in the testimony of Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in 2012:
Confucius Institutes are described as non-profit public institutions aligned with the government of the People’s Republic of China whose purpose is to promote Chinese language and culture, as well as facilitate cultural exchanges. This seemingly benign purpose leaves out a number of purposes both salient and sinister, namely, sanitizing China’s image abroad, enhancing its “soft power” globally, and creating a new generation of China watchers who well-disposed towards the Communist dictatorship.
I believe, despite such alarmist rhetoric, that the Confucius Institute system has the potential to be a very effective public diplomacy endeavor for China. However, there are steps that Hanban needs to take to ensure that Confucius Institutes are considered credible around the world.
First, Hanban needs to separate itself and the Confucius Institute organization from the Chinese government further, even if it already promotes itself as “a non-governmental and non-profit organization affiliated to the Ministry of Education of China.” This new entity could be funded by Chinese universities, membership fees, profits from the sale of official textbooks and other materials, and government education grants that are applied for through official, unbiased channels. The more distance Hanban can put between itself and the Chinese government the better. While not all stigma will immediately disappear, it will dispel the notion that the Chinese government is using individual Confucius Institute campuses as a way to promote the demonized western idea of propaganda, to conduct espionage activities, and to censor sensitive topics. Non-Chinese universities will be less hesitant to work directly with Chinese universities, increasing the latter’s stature in the global education system, while Mandarin and Chinese culture will be able to be promoted and dispersed without the ball-and-chain of past government action.
Take for example the English as a Second Language (ESL) industry in East Asia. There are tens of thousands of ESL schools scattered around the region. The vast majority are independent of any national government and considerable money-makers. When parents sign their kids up to take ESL classes, they do not consider this to be an activity of American propaganda, but a means of preparing their children for a globalized world. However, a majority of ESL teachers in East Asia come from the United States. In addition, English today conjures images of the United States and the American dream. So, in effect, kids taking ESL courses are often being heavily exposed to American ideas and culture as well as the American dialect of English. It is American public diplomacy free of cost to the American government. (Replace the American teacher with a British or Australian or Indian teacher, and the same remains true for the respective government.)
An independent Confucius Institute organization can work to lay the foundation for a Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) industry. The Chinese government would not have control over the ideology of the industry—certainly a tough pill to swallow—but it will be much more effective Chinese public diplomacy than anything the Chinese government sponsored. More people will potentially become interested in Mandarin and Chinese culture, which in turn will inspire them to travel to and study in China.
More Confucius Institutes in foreign countries, both independent and partnered with universities, benefit the host countries as well. Administrators and teachers will gain first-hand experience of working and living in the host country. They, in turn, will relay positive experiences back to their personal networks in China. Confucius Institutes, if allowed to be independent in administration and content, can be two-way symmetrical communication, the ultimate goal of public diplomacy.
1. Can the U.S. and China Work Together in Africa?
A 2013 Brookings Institute report lays out a number of different options for how the U.S. & China can work together in Africa in the field of natural resource extraction. Ghana, in particular, is one key area that shows some potential yet major obstacles remain… largely that these two powers have divergent agendas in Africa.
2. New White Paper Outlines China’s Africa Policy
China’s powerful State Council recently published its latest white paper on Africa that details Beijing’s policy accomplishments and objectives on the continent. While some of what they published is the standard propaganda one expects from the Chinese government, there are also some enlightening insights here that are worth exploring.
What are the perceptions of China-Africa relations? What do Africans and Chinese, in particular, think of that relationship?
We are glad you asked that! Listen to this episode of the Cowries and Rice podcast as the speakers commit all sorts of cardinal sins about social science research; generalizing based on anecdotes and incomplete data, and making claims that are not exactly reviewed by a scholarly body! Dangerous!
Join host Winslow Robertson with (three possibly permanent) co-hosts: Dr. Nkemjika Kalu who just earned her PhD in Political Science from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, where she studied Nigerian perceptions of engagement with Chinese immigrants; Elle Wang who is pursuing her PhD from George Mason University in Public Policy is studying African migrant communities in Guangzhou and Yiwu; and Andy Liu, a U.S.-based Chinese blogger on China as well as a communications professional in global development, and formerly a CCTV journalist. How do the Africans and Chinese peoples with whom they have interacted felt about the China-Africa relationship? How do our current perceptions of the China-Africa relationship compare with the experiences faced by Chinese migrants in Africa and vice versa? Listen to this week’s episode to find out!
Also, check out following resources on China-Africa relations recommended by the co-hosts: