The initiative taken by China to establish university branch campuses in other countries, as reported by Roger Chao, is not at all surprising. It is unquestionable that China wants to play a major role in global higher education to match its aspiration of becoming the world’s leading economic power. China has understood what many countries still fail to appreciate: higher education is a key vehicle not only to achieve economic development but also to attain ‘soft power’ regionally and globally.
China has adopted a very strategic approach in its long-term objective, with education playing a crucial role. English being the acknowledged global language, China promotes the teaching of English in its schools and has sent thousands of its teachers to USA, UK and Australia to learn English.
At the same time, China promotes its own language and culture, by offering thousands of scholarships, especially to developing countries, for higher education studies in China, in most cases the scholars having to learn Chinese prior to their studies. But what perhaps has been its boldest move is the launching of Confucius Institutes throughout the world. The first Confucius Institute (CI) was set up in 2004 and today there are over 300 of them in more than 90 countries, with more than 70 of them in USA, the country hosting the largest number of CIs. China aims to establish 1,000 CIs by 2020. If the main objective of CIs is to promote the teaching of Chinese at universities and the appreciation of Chinese culture, they also help to prepare scholars proceeding to study in China, assist in the research activities undertaken by postgraduate students in China and facilitate trade between the host country and China. What is noteworthy is that almost all the CIs are located in universities; and they usually do not operate as separate appendages but are integrated within the university structure. That is different from the approach adopted by Britain in establishing its British Council (or France in setting up its Alliance Francaise) offices.
In Africa there are about 25 CIs and many more no doubt will be set up. They are located in some of the best universities such as Stellenbosch University in South Africa, the University of Nairobi in Kenya and the University of Lagos in Nigeria. China is already investing heavily in Africa’s infrastructure development and the CIs could help to create better collaboration between Africa and China in engineering. Africa is also in dire need of higher education opportunities and the CIs could assist in providing greater opportunities for Africans to study in China, especially as all the scholars return home after their studies and the issue of brain drain from Africa does not arise. The CIs could equally help to promote research collaboration between African and Chinese universities.
There have been, not surprisingly, criticisms of CIs. Some have accused them of promoting neo-colonialism; others suspect them of industrial espionage; yet others of promoting China’s ideology and propaganda, especially in political matters related to Tibet and Taiwan, or even of breaking human rights rules. But a CI is established as a collaborative venture between the host university and in most cases a Chinese partner university. Since it operates under the umbrella of the host university, there are avenues for checks and balances in its operation, although there is no doubt that the CI must abide by the rules and procedures laid down by the CI headquarters in Beijing.
What is undeniable, however, is that through its CIs, China has been able to extend its presence in higher education globally like no other country before. With the rising importance of China in almost all global matters – economic, political, social, scientific, environmental - universities in the world can make use of the CI as a much-needed intellectual space in an academic environment for better understanding and dialoguing with China, a country to be reckoned with. China, after all, is the world’s most populous country and the second largest economy.
Chinese Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world. It is estimated that 12% of the world’s population speak Mandarin as the first language, compared to 5% who speak English. And yet, English is fast becoming the world’s most commonly spoken language. China is making every effort to promote English among its population; is it unfair therefore for it to expect the world to make an effort to understand its language through its CIs?