Are China’s Confucius Institutes Responsive to Local Demand or Soft Power Aspirations?

A recent report by Pew Research Center presents an interesting finding: America’s global image remains more positive than China’s, but many foresee China’s ascendance. Increased levels of Chinese development finance, and double-digit GDP growth rates correspond with this view. Various cultural exchange initiatives have improved China’s global image, most notably the Confucius Institute (CI) program seen as emblematic of China’s “soft power” engagement with economic and political allies worldwide. As the opening of a CI in an African country appeared to respond to an influx of Chinese development activities in the area, we wondered whether and how the two phenomena are related. Why do some African countries receive CIs and not others?

The process of choosing CI locations is opaque, much like Chinese foreign assistance more broadly. According to Professor Ma Lei, Deputy Director of the CI at the College of William & Mary, prospective host institutions contact Hanban (the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language) seeking to partner with a Chinese university. This implies that the opening of new CIs is driven by local demand, which is consistent with claimsthat China’s development presence in Africa comes at the request of local actors.

If CIs follow similar allocation patterns as other Chinese development projects, we would expect the total amount Chinese foreign aid and the number of CIs in a country to be correlated. The map below uses AidData’s databaseof Chinese Development Finance to Africa to overlay the location of all African CIs with the gross value of Chinese foreign aid to each country from 2000-2011. “Aid” in this context includes all non-investment and non-military finance given by a Chinese government agency (both ODA and OOF), regardless of concessionality. 

Sources: Data on Chinese official finance in Africa is from (as of 7/19/13) and includes both ODA and OOF flows consistent with the OECD’s terminology. CI data is from
Consistent with our expectations, most countries receiving relatively more Chinese development finance (denoted by a darker shade of red) have at least one CI. However, this correlation does not imply causation.  Making assertions about the strength and direction of the relationship would require in-depth analysis about each host institution’s motivation in requesting a CI.

Nigeria might be one such case study. Recently, we spoke with Zhao Yang, a volunteer teacher at the CI of University of Lagos. Having lived in Lagos for the past eighteen months, Yang confirmed Nigerian students’ enthusiasm for learning Mandarin and the presence of a growing number of well-paying Chinese companies operating in Nigeria. The students’ overall level of interest has remained high, despite the relative complexity of Mandarin compared with other languages. Increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants to Nigeria has also fueled local interest in learning about Chinese culture and language, according to Yang who also teaches a popular Wushu(Chinese martial arts) class.

It appears that the establishment of CIs is not merely due to a Chinese soft power offensive, as some have argued. Rather, it appears that the opportunities presented by Chinese economic engagement inspire local demand for Mandarin skills, interest in Chinese culture, and requests for official development cooperation. Local educators take note of this economic and cultural interest, and invite Hanban to establish a CI in their country. Recipient demand is an essential element of the allocation process.

Calvin Chan is an AidData Research Assistant at the College of William & Mary and Wenxia Tang is a Summer Consultant. The supporting map was created by Qiao Li, a Summer Consultant at AidData.

Tags: United StateseducationAfricaChinaforeign policyaid transparency