China’s soft power

What’s the first thing that springs to your mind when you hear ‘Chinese exports’? Perhaps you might think of an aseembly line in a factory in China where a huge amount of cheap products such as shoes, hats, clothes, tools, and manchinery parts are produced every day. You might also think about China putting restriction on its exports of rare earth metals, which has caused conflicts between major trading nations. However, there’s one thing that China has consistently and vigorously been trying to sell to the world since 2004 – China’s cherished thousands-year-old culture and lauguage. And this has generated some controversies.


So-called soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye to describe the ability to attract someone rather than coerce through military means. As opposed to hard power, which uses military or economic forces to coerce a state to do something that coincides with your national interest, soft power uses means such as culture and language. China’s soft power projection is being done by Confucius Institutes (Cis), which was established in 2004 by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with the aim of promoting Chinese langugage and culture, facilitating cultural exchanges, encouraging and supporting local Chinese teaching internationally. The CIs are governed by a non-profit organisation Hanban (汉办),: the office of Chinese Languagge Council International, nominated by the Ministery of Education of the PRC. The Institute works cooperateively with local organisations and it has a number of local affilitate colleges and universities around the world. The CIs are funded by both Hanban and the host local institutions who share some of its revenue with Hanban.

Although the CIs states that its primary goals are promoting Chinese language and culture, their attempt to etxend their cultural reach has generated some controversies. Many scholars argue that the purpose of the CIs is to exercise China’s soft power. That is, expanding its sphere of influence in many areas such as economy, culture and foreign relations via the promotion of Chinese language and culture. PArticularly, the CIs have been playing a vital role in assuging other states who are increasingly concerned about China’s hard power such as its powerful economy and military, a “China threat”.


The Institutes are gaining increasing popularity from the world with a strong financial support from the PRC. They have expanded their operations in nearly all parts of the world. Indonesia who had banned the teaching of Chinese for the last three decades due to the PRC’s support for Communist rebels, lifted the prohibition recently. Vietnam has also accepted a Confucius Institute  amid a boom in Chinese language instruction. “In South Korea, Chinese has reportedly outstrippted English as the most popular foreign language among students”. This popularit arises from the fact that the two nations share cultutral and historical values that date back to the thousadns of years, and particularly the fact that mastering Chinese charcters and Mandarin is considered to be a mark of cultivation in the South Korean society.


As The New York Times article highlightes, “For decades, people in those countries have viewed China with deep suspicion. But now mastering Chinese as a door to lucrative business opportunities, or simply as a master of popular fashion, is suddenly all the vogue in the world”. Even in Tasmania where there is only one university with relatively small population, there is a fair amount of people who are studying Chinese and the its popularity is rising. And surprisingly, there is a Confucius sculpture in the university campus.


The power of China and the popularity of Chinense culture and laugnage go hand in hand. These all reflect the prevailing concept of the “rise of China” and the PRC’s political goals that it wants to achieve through its soft power projection. Through the projection of soft power on the world, China has been able to push back from the West who has been labelling China by using negative terms without reasonable logic or evidence. It would be interesting to see whether China could break the US’s hegemony in soft power and become the biggest soft-power exporting country. I guess, the fact that Chinese has outstripped English as the most popular foreign language amongst students in South Korea does signal a shift in South Korea’s foreign policy or its traditional strong US-ally status in international relations?



Reference : Another Chinese Export Is All the Rage: China’s Langugage, The New York Times,


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