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The OECD suggests that by 2025 there will be no fewer than 8 million international students studying outside their home country, an astonishing number in comparison to the 2 million registered in 1998. Certainly, the rising number of students studying abroad positively affects their host countries. International students promote intercultural relationships on the campuses where they study; they contribute to local economies; and they often fill gaps in the labor market entering as highly qualified workers if they stay after graduating. 

However, besides these positive advantages, it is important to recognize more subtle benefits to sending and receiving countries. Although rarely mentioned, sending and host countries are leveraging student mobility to achieve national objectives. China provides a good example when a country actively promotes international education to pursue its national interests through soft power.  

A host country benefits from international students in that they are not just studying abroad but are also, to some extent, assimilating local culture and as a result “operationalizing” the influence of the host country’s soft power. 

What is a policy of soft power?

Soft power may be utilized by countries as a foreign policy lever through itinerant individuals and can be exercised in different ways. In his book, Soft power: The means to success in world politics, Joseph Nye suggests that soft power “is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.” 

As noted above, China is one of the countries that strategically employs soft power. In October 2011, at the 17th National Congress of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary Hu Jintao focused on developing “cultural soft power” as a foreign policy priority. The principle idea was to increase China’s influence by spreading Chinese language and culture abroad and increasing its international impact. 

China immediately began to implement this policy through regional initiatives and by expanding the number of Confucius Institutes worldwide. These Institutes bridge language and cultural exchanges between China and other countries. The mission is to introduce Chinese culture through the teaching of Chinese language, history and traditions and encourage study in China. The majority of Institutes are located on a university campus and are subsidized by China’s central government (at about $10 billion annually). Institutes offer free classes, cover summer travels to China and provide support to individuals pursuing a scholarship or internship in China. By 2017 there were 525 Confucius Institutes and 1,113 Confucius classrooms in 146 countries with an enrollment of 9.16 million students. Institutes have offered 410,000 language courses to around 46,000 full and part-time and overseas Chinese teachers. China has increased the number of scholarships up to 30,000, especially to students from Central Asia and invited 10,000 teachers and students from the region’s Confucius Institutes to participate in training programs in China.

The global engagement strategy combines the work of the Confucius Institute with the One Belt One Road initiative that provides financial aid and loans to developing countries. To date, China has invested in infrastructure projects in over 70 countries (in Eurasia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America) and facilitated staff and student exchange programs. 

Yet, geographic proximity might be a good reason why Central Asian citizens favor China as a destination. These substantial support programs suggest that China is leveraging these initiatives as a means to gain influence throughout Central Asia and developing countries elsewhere. These efforts may not only support China’s economic goals but promote its broader national interests.

The soft power effects through the rapid economic growth 

In recent years, China’s government has been actively attracting not only international students but also Chinese talent abroad to return home to implement an innovation-driven development strategy and create more tax incentives to attract venture capital. The number of Chinese graduates that have returned home has more than doubled since 2011. According to official government statistics, of 339,700 Chinese students that studied abroad in 2011, 186,200 returned to China that year. In 2016, upwards of 544,500 Chinese students were studying abroad and 432,500 returned home. 

The combination of rapid growth in the high-tech sector and creation of a fast track program has increased the proportion of inbound students to outbound students from 55% to nearly 80%. Soft power can pay dividends when it is coupled with economic opportunity. That is an enviable reversal of brain drain.

The Chinese government has enacted a policy in two directions with apparently equal success: on the one hand using soft power to attract international students and promote Chinese culture abroad through Confucius Institutes and on the other hand boosting economic opportunities to increase the flow of Chinese talent back home. In this way, they have simultaneously increased their visibility abroad, enticed talented foreign students to come to China and stemmed the loss of domestic talent.

To their credit, Chinese policymakers established clear targets and were able to attain them through initiatives that included utilizing higher education as the vehicle to achieve policy goals. As a result, international students, perhaps unwittingly, became actors in China’s policy. Recognizing China’s skill at reaching goals through peaceful means is a demonstration of global policy that leverages soft power to advance a larger geopolitical agenda.


Ainur Yerezhepekova is a graduate student at George Washington University in international education. She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the Eurasian National University and seven years of professional experience in the field of education, five at the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan. 

Torebekova Zulfiya is a PhD student in social science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She holds a master’s degree in international development policy from Duke University and has 20 years of professional experience in education, including 14 years at the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan. 



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