Chinese Soft-Power in the Arab world – China’s Confucius Institutes as a central tool of influence

Research Highlighted:

Yellinek, R., Mann, Y., & Lebel, U. (2020). Chinese Soft-Power in the Arab world – China’s Confucius Institutes as a central tool of influence. Comparative Strategy, 39(6), 517-534. doi:10.1080/01495933.2020.1826843

Dr Roie Yellinek, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies

Confucius Institutes are one of the major ways China invests Soft-Power in the world. Beginning in 2004 China has invested extensive resources and efforts in the establishment of culture and language centers known as “Confucius Institutes” – named after the 6th century b.c Chinese philosopher. These institutes, which operate within universities worldwide, are managed by the Hanban – the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which is a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education. The official goal of the institutes, as appears on their websites, is to offer Chinese language courses and Chinese cultural activities, with the target audience being mainly students and university academic staff. However, the institutes serve a further purpose, being “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup,” as explained by a senior Chinese official. In view of this dual purpose, it is important to expose and analyze the characteristics of the insti- tutes and the local responses to their operation.

Much has been written on the relationship between China and the Arab world. However, most of the studies published on the subject were written from a Chinese perspective, rather than an Arab one. Studies on Confucius Institutes specifically, although the institutes have been operating for over fifteen years, have focused mainly on their presence in Western countries such as Australia and the UK or else focused exclusively on Chinese perspective and interests. The current study, however, aims to fill this gap by discussing the role of the Institutes – which are among the main aspects of Chinese Soft-Power – from an Arab perspective. A further contribution of this paper is its presentation of an initial index for examining the level of success of the penetration of a university institute funded by a foreign country, as shall be presented toward the end of this paper.

This article starts with a short discussion about Soft Power as a theoretical term in the field of international relations. Then, the article bases the argument that universities use, or can be used as leadership institutions. After the theoretical part, the article focuses on the link between this part and China. In order to present and emphasize the connection, the article quotes Zhou Enlai, first Premier of the People’s Republic of China since its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976, said about this topic that “Culture is a tool in the hands of the political and economic system for promoting collaboration between China and the world.”

In addition, we can learn about the ways in which modern Chinese leaders perceived the need to use their country’s Soft-Power from the words of Current and former Chinese Presidents who have expressed the way they believe China needs to make use of its Soft-Power. Hu Jintao, President of China from 2003 to 2013, said during his keynote speech at the 17th congress of the Chinese Communist party held on 14 October 2007 that “We must expand the use of culture in our country’s Soft-Power… as it holds a growing importance in the overall competition between world countries.” In 2017 Chinese President Xi Jinping said that “We must increase China’s Soft-Power, give a good Chinese narrative, and extend China’s message to the world”.

An Initial index for examining the success of Confucius institutes offered by the article. The index assess the ways in which the Chinese institutes were accepted in Arabic speaking countries. The first measure of the index includes an examination of demand and supply, the second part assesses the extent of response by the local media and leadership, and the third measures the levels of identification among the institutes’ customers, mainly students, with the values that the institute promotes and represents. This index can also be applied to educational-cultural institutes in general.

In 2006 the first Confucius Institute in the Arab world was founded at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University. Since then and until the end of December 2019, fourteen further institutes were established in various Arab countries including Bahrain and Sudan, two in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Jordan, and three in Morocco. Institutes were also established in other countries in the region, two of them in Israel, four in Turkey and one in Iran. However, the present paper focuses on Arabic speaking countries due to the fact that these countries have common attributes that are not shared by the other countries in the region. Moreover, other Arabic speaking countries have conducted negotiations for the establishment of Confucius Institutes in their universities, but, as aforesaid, this paper discusses only those already established. In the following sections we review the work of Confucius Institutes operating in the Arab world, analyze their operations and the Arab response to their presence.

The article’s core discusses and analyses the ways Confucius Institutes function and what was the local response to it. This is done systematically with a division into states, which are arranged in the order in which the institutes are established in their territory. This review and analysis of the data point to the conclusion that Confucius Institutes, as a tool of Chinese Soft-Power, have effectively penetrated the Arab world and welcomed among its policy makers, university faculty and students, without significant criticism. Chinese diplomacy, headed by the current Chinese President, tends to claim that China’s operations in the global arena are focused on financial and commercial areas, and that they harbor no political or other aspiration in the global arena, such as replacing the USA in its role as “Global Policeman”. Thus, for instance, to reiterate this concept, Chinese President Xi Jinping often said that China under his leadership promotes a win-win situation in its international relations, by promoting a peaceful coexistence and building a world of cooperation in which both sides, China and the other country, benefit. The scope of the present study does not permit discussing this position further, and it is presented here only to illustrate the nature of Chinese diplomacy and the way in which the Chinese operate their Soft-Power pipes. Consequently, it is not surprising that Confucius Institutes direct their students to studying language and culture and promote these areas, rather than dealing with other topics which may be less acceptable for the Chinese administration backing the Institutes.

Author Bio

Roie Yellinek earned his Ph.D. from the department of Middle-Eastern Studies and the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan (Israel). In addition, he is a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and adjunct researcher at IDF Dado Center. He is a specialist in the growing relationship between the Middle East and China, especially in regards to the Soft-Power component of Chinese diplomacy. His research is based on fieldwork conducted in China, Israel and other countries. He has authored numerous articles that have been published by academic publishers, research institutions and newspapers in both Israeli and international media outlets. He can be contacted via Email:  \

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