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Confucius Institutes: Cultural Diplomacy OR Cultural Imperialism?

The concept of colonialism is closely linked to the concept of imperialism, a policy of using and penetrating power to control another nation or people. The colonising nation implements its own form of education within its colonies. In this aspect, colonised governments and peoples are achieved through mental control, after an initial military conquest. This mental control is forced upon the target population through by colonial administrators placed in charge of schools, cultural and educational institutions.

The system control of education by European colonial powers is why English and French are the most popular official languages of communication in Africa. Their languages were introduced as a symbol of civilisation, and the benefits like jobs that comes with passing through the European education system gave social status in colonial Africa. At the same time, the colonial education system aimed to train training officers, interpreters, inspectors and artisans to assist colonialists in the exploitation of Africa’s rich resources.

The devastating effects of European colonialism on African culture, mindset and education continues. The end of colonialism allowed Africa to redefine its relationship with former colonial powers like France and Britain and forge new relationships with other countries. In the last 20 years, one of the most fascinating relationship Africa’s postcolonial history has been its relationship with China.

China is an emerging global power with its own culture, value system, and views of the world, that are different from those of the West. Its engagement with Africa has been very dynamic, beginning with the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and African countries, which layed the foundation for trade and economic relations, and the last two decades, and expansion into sociocultural exchanges.

African journalists and Hanban officials discussed prospects of the work of Confucius Institutes on the continent. (Photo/CAPC)

China’s Confucius Institutes serve as a platform for China’s cultural diplomacy around the world. The first Confucius Institute opened its doors in Seoul, South Korea in 2004. Since then, there has been a proliferation of Confucius Institutes across the world, some of which can be found in African countries. According to data from the Chinese Language Council (Hanban) website, there are 535 Confucian Institutes worldwide, while there are 1193 Confucian classes in primary and secondary schools.

Africa is no stranger to foreign cultural institutes built for the propagation of a foreign culture. European colonialists established their hegemony through cultural institutions such as the “British Council” and the “Alliance Française”. This is why many experts view China’s Confucius Institutes with suspicions. They consider Confucius Institutes as an immitation of the strategies pursued by Western powers for the propagation of cultural imperialism.

Soft power is an important concept in making sense of the cultural dimension in international relations. As the use of soft power and its influence increases, so does the number of countries investing in cultural diplomacy.

Many countries view the concept of soft power as a strategy of “cultural imperialism” and use it to shape the values, language, beliefs and ideas of the country they are particularly interested in. This strategy was adopted in the late 19th and 20th century by European powers seeking to increase their influence in Africa.

Modern education on the African continent has always been shaped by external forces. Even after decolonisation, African youth continued to be educated in systems that followed foreign Euro-American paradigms, a trend that enabled the continuity of globalization dominated by the West.

The language of education in many African countries is mostly French and English, languages belonging to global trade and former colonial powers. More than 2,000 African languages are often cited as obstacles to economic progress. For this reason, an African education model could not be developed, and African countries were always dependent on the outside world for a ‘better education’.

As a result of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the representatives of the Confucius Institute and the Government of Zambia, the inclusion of a compulsory Chinese language course in the public high school curriculum is reminiscent of a similar strategy used by the British in colonising Zambia: stirring up uncomfortable memories of the cultural hegemony it suffered under European colonialism.

  • Are Confucius Institutes Cultural or Political?

Confucius Institutes were established by the Chinese government, working in cooperation with foreign universities and educational institutions in order to enable their understanding of Chinese language and culture.

Confucius Institutes are engaged in cultural diplomacy, especially in order to increase the international recognition of Chinese language and culture. They achieve this through teaching Chinese, organizing cultural events and study trips, as well as implementing student exchange programs.

Some observers believe that the Confucian network of institutes, despite its neutral and academic outlook, may have an underlying political agenda. The pace of the spread of Chinese institutions on the international stage in a short period of time is remarkable. This rapid expansion parallels China’s steady rise as an emerging superpower.

China is pursuing a long-term strategy to shape the image of its growing global influence with cultural diplomacy. Beijing has greatly expanded its network of Confucian Institutes (CI) in Africa over the past decade, in order to further strengthen its image and advance the Chinese language internationally. The first Confucius Institute in Africa opened in 2005 at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

There are 25 Confucian classes in primary and secondary schools across the continent, as well as 61 Confucian institutes in 47 African countries, according to the Chinese Language Council (Hanban). China provides the establishment and development of Confucian institutes and Confucian classes in Africa, while at the same time supporting teaching staff, staff training and equipment.

Although absent from most universities in Africa, Confucius Institutes have become a center point for those who want to learn the Chinese language in general or learn more about China.

  • Mandarin as a Soft Power Tool

One of the key areas in which foreign states on the continent compete for influence is education and culture, and China is not slacking. Currently, China ranks third in the African continent in terms of cultural activity, after France and the United States. The biggest criticisms of China’s growing role on the continent come from France, Britain and the US, countries with equivalent institutions pursuing their own interest.

However, China has the disadvantage of having a language that is not generally understood or spoken in Africa, the foreign content of Africa’s media (news and entertainment) is overwhelming dominated by West.

This gives the West as soft power advantage over China, because it could far easily shape Africa’s perception of China than China can. Against the backdrop of great power competition between the US-Led West and China, this is a weakness the China can not afford, considering the size of its engagement with Africa.

Beijing therefore considers Confucius Institutes, intended to promote Chinese language learning and promote understanding of Chinese culture, to be an effective and indispensable tool to shape the narrative and combat views it considers erroneous that may be coming from within Africa or from rival western powers present in Africa.

In 2017, for example, the Institute at Yaoundé University of Cameroon trained 10 thousand Cameroonian students in collaboration with eight local universities and several private language schools. Interest in Chinese language education is at the forefront in some countries of the African continent. Chinese courses are held at universities in South Africa, Benin, Cameroon, Kenya and Ivory Coast.

In Zimbabwe and Congo, Chinese language education is offered at the secondary level. At the same time, the addition of the Chinese language to the curriculum of some schools in East and Southern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa).

Joseph Nye, a renowned American political scientist at Harvard University, has discussed at length the role of language as a tool of soft power. According to Nye, any user of a language will be influenced by that language’s essence, its implied values welded deeply into its grammatical framework.

As such, the infusion of Mandarin into the education process of young Africans means they won’t just be picking up the language, but also Chinese values which forms the basis of China’s political attitude. As such, it would be naive to deny the potential of Mandarin to shape the mindset of Africans, especially when they are learning the language at such an impressionable age.

China’s economic growth also sparked a great interest in its culture and was largely under this influence which led to the successful establishment of the Confucian Institutes. The main determining factor in language adoption is the benefits to be obtained from the use of the target language. Especially economic benefits. This is why more and more Africans, in the face of the noticeable presence of China’s industry and Trade, want to learn Chinese to look for development opportunities in the future.

The close relationship between economic dependence and political influence can’t be ignored. Years of rapidly growing trade between China and Africa, inspired the ever-deepening needs for people-to-people exchange between both sides. Given the vast cultural differences between both sides, there is no doubt Confucian institutes have a role to play in lubricating the rapidly growing relations between China and Africa.

For Africans learning Mandarin, the language makes them more competitive, it not only boosts their communication with investors, trade, entrepreneurs, and colleagues. But also their understanding of the China in general. But this doesn’t take away the fact that Mandarin being a conduit of Chinese thoughts, values and ideas also makes it a tool of soft power.

China is perfectly positioned to grow the potential of the Mandarin as a soft power tool. Its economic and financial might is just the right incentive Africans need to learn Mandarin. As Chinese investment and financial footprint spread across Africa, Africans will increasingly adopt Mandarin, thereby deepening China’s soft power.

  • Influence is Not Control

In the past, colonial countries penetrated Africa using missionaries, educators, corporations, traders, investors, and later seized Africa’s riches. Whichs why in recent years, China has been accused of a subtle form of colonialism in Africa because of some parallels. Although, these are grossly exaggerated and misrepresented.

China’s engagement with Africa is one of sovereignty countries dealing with each other. Chinese funded infrastructure projects in Africa serve Africans and their various national development interests. Nonetheless, on closer inspection some of these projects are part of China’s global ambitions captured in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is China’s geostrategic initiative to establish a global trading system and network with over 60 countries. Thereby placing China at the centre of global trade and economics. However, this isn’t necessarily against Africa’s interests, but could be beneficial to African countries in many ways. African countries who are signed on to the BRI have seen an increase in Chinese investment and finance packages.

Today Africa is home to as many as a million Chinese. They include entrepreneurs, traders, engineers, doctors, technicians etc taking part in projects across Africa. Similar to the purpose of Europeans arriving in Africa in earlier years, but very different in that African countries are sovereign, and their leaders aren’t forced to sign trade deal or loan agreements with China. But are doing so because of the economic and development benefits.

The Chinese working in Africa through Confucius Institutes are spreading ideas and Chinese culture through educational materials with the aim of improving the ease of business and cooperation between China and the host country. Which is vastly different from what was experienced during the European colonial era, the Christian missionaries, teachers, judges, law enforcement and administrators sent from Europe to Africa were a cornerstone in maintaining and securing their colonial rule over Africa it had subdued militarily.


For centuries African culture was subjugated by western culture forced on Africans by colonial powers, film, television, music and food chains were western, which greatly suppressed the African mind. After emerging from a prolonged period cultural imperialism, care must be taken by Africans to ensure the proliferation of Confucius Institutes in Africa only serve to spread the awareness of Chinese culture, Chinese language, education, architecture, music, food, films, beliefs, clothing, art, and models of thinking and not derail efforts to revive African identities, and the development and restoration of African culture.

Today China-Africa relations is blossoming in many areas, including economics, politics and development. The cultural exchanges between both sides adds a new dimension to the promising relationship between China and Africa. Whether China nurses secret imperial ambitions or not, is not Africa’s problem, the extent to which it can achieve such goals will depend to a large extent on the resilience of the African people, and the awareness of African leaders, and the ability of these leaders to ensure Africa’s relationship with is mutually beneficial.

While the infusion of Mandarin will enrich the education policy of African countries, and better prepare its youth for a world where China plays an increasing role, caution must be taken to avoid it being used to influence Africans against their own interest.

Ovigwe Eguegu is a Nigerian analyst and writer specialising in international affairs. He is currently Foreign Relations Editor at The Southern African Times where he writes on geopolitics, diplomacy, and security Africa; while paying close attention to the Africa policy of global actors such as China, the European Union, United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Russia. Ovigwe has appeared on Al Jazeera English and Arise TV on several occasions to discuss international security and African affairs.

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