The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why U.S. universities are shutting down China-funded Confucius Institutes

In January 2011, Chinese President Hu Jintao visits a Beijing-funded Confucius Institute in Chicago — housed at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School. (Pool photo via AP )

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made a huge effort to promote China’s image as a global leader. In a Jan. 2 speech, Chinese leader Xi Jinping reiterated the theme of China’s “great rejuvenation,” a view that emphasizes the “Chinese Dream,” a return to the nation’s former glory as a global powerhouse.

But do these efforts actually work? In October, Vice President Pence complained that the “Chinese Communist Party is spending billions of dollars on propaganda outlets in the United States, as well as other countries.” This week, reports emerged that at least 10 U.S. universities had closed their Confucius Institutes (CIs), saying a polite “no thanks” to these Chinese-funded language and cultural programs on college campuses.

What’s the story on China’s big PR drive and the ensuing pushback — and how do CIs fit in? Here’s what you need to know.

China looks to tighten control of its image

The CCP and Xi have launched a full-fledged campaign to “tell China’s story well,” spending billions of dollars on propaganda efforts — including the purchase of paid supplements in major news outlets like the Economist and The Washington Post. Yet while an authoritarian state like China can control political discussion at home, it is more difficult to craft a message of benevolent paternalism abroad. China’s efforts to improve its image overseas at times have been ham-handed and the subject of parody, or sometimes ignored.

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Nevertheless, the CCP continues to try. In recent years it has grown increasingly concerned with what it calls “China Threat Theory,” and has looked for ways to counter foreign claims that China is a military and economic danger. The CIs are a part of the government’s response to reframe the country in positive terms.

Confucius Institutes are part of this grass roots effort

China is working actively to improve its image abroad from the ground up. CIs are arrangements on university campuses across the globe to host Chinese culture and language instructors. The Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban, oversees these institutes. This effort falls under the Ministry of Education, which ultimately is supervised by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

The proliferation of Confucius Institutes since the first one opened in South Korea in 2004 is remarkable — there are more than 500 CIs operating on every continent, in locations ranging from Anchorage to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. At their peak, CIs were on more than 100 North American college campuses.

What impact do these CIs have?

While the expansion of Confucius Institutes is impressive, it remains unclear what impact they have on promoting China’s image abroad. AidData recently investigated the impact of China’s public diplomacy efforts in East Asia and the Pacific, and the Pew Research Center has periodically checked public opinion on China at various locations across the globe — but there are few consistent and comparable surveys of local-level attitudes toward China over time. This lack of data has made it challenging to assess the extent to which China’s more localized overseas image management strategies have been successful.

Our research in a new AidData working paper addresses this issue by using data from the Global Database on Events, Language and Tone (GDELT), which algorithmically captures the tone of hundreds of thousands of media reports at thousands of locations across the world. In other words, it measures how positive or negative a story about China is. While the database has received some criticism over the accuracy of its algorithms, with careful analysis it can still be used to extract useful information, particularly about media tone.

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Using geospatial techniques, our research evaluates how tone about China changes in media reports regarding events near a Confucius Institute before and after the CI opens. We find the opening of a CI subsequently enhances tone in stories about China relevant to that geographical area by about 6 percent — a small, but meaningful improvement.

Two examples illustrate how a seemingly small tone change may make a big difference to the reader. A 2014 Reuters story about protests in Hong Kong, coded by the GDELT algorithm at a score very near the average tone, used relatively neutral language like “leaving the two sides far apart in a dispute over how much political control China should have over Hong Kong.” In contrast, a 2016 story from Pakistan’s Express Tribune, which was scored 6 percent more positively by the GDELT algorithm, uses noticeably more upbeat language including phrases like “projects had taken the two countries’ friendship to a new height.” 

Winning the battle, losing the war?

While our research suggests Confucius Institutes help facilitate an improved portrayal of China abroad, the gains may be overtaken by broader trends. In fact, despite the opening of hundreds of Confucius Institutes from 2005 to 2017, the GDELT data indicates overall global media tone about China has become markedly more negative over that time, with particular downturns from 2012 to 2013 and from 2014 to 2015. CIs might be swimming against the tide.

A more assertive Beijing raises new questions for U.S.-China relations

Indeed, high-profile scuffles in the South China Sea, accusations of debt-trap diplomacy  along China’s Belt and Road countries, and China’s repression of ethnic minorities or Nobel Peace Prize winners (and even their families) may offset any modest gains from CIs and other public diplomacy initiatives.

Despite its best efforts, China may still find molding public perception abroad of the CCP-run state is much more difficult than at home. Xi’s Chinese Dream ideal, for now, may struggle in the glare of a global spotlight. But we can be sure the CCP will continue its attempts to soften its image overseas and make adjustments when necessary.

Samuel Brazys (@sbrazys_ucd) is associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. 

Alexander Dukalskis (@AlexDukalskis) is assistant professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin.