Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Defending soft power

Soft power is a concept that easily gets lost in the study of comparative politics. When the Chinese government first established Confucius Institutes, observers appropriately pointed to them as the use of soft power to extend the influence of the nation state. When critics appeared recently, the government-run media defended the institutes.

Fear or Ignorance Drives Confucius Institutes’ Critics, Xinhua Says
Chinese state media on Tuesday defended the spread of Confucius Institutes worldwide, lashing back at a recent call for North American universities to rethink their links with the cultural and language programs, which are backed by the Chinese government.

The American Association of University Professors recently argued that universities that form partnerships with Confucius Institutes sacrifice their integrity and that of their academic staff. The criticism of one of China’s most visible soft-power initiatives struck a sour note with Xinhua, the state news agency, which dismissed the group’s concerns as stemming from “either fear of other cultures or ignorance — or both.”…

The professors’ association, whose focus is promoting academic freedom, had warned that the institutes “function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.” The organization called for universities to end their partnerships with Confucius Institutes or renegotiate their contracts…

The discussion has heated up as the number of institutes has grown rapidly in recent years. Just 10 years after the first Confucius Institute was opened in South Korea, there are now 440 of them, around a quarter of which are based in North America…

Confucius, once the target of attacks in the Cultural Revolution along with other remnants of “old China,” has since been rehabilitated in the eyes of official China. (Xinhua’s editorial refers to him as the “great Chinese sage.”)

Last November, President Xi Jinping visited the sage’s hometown and noted the success of Confucius Institutes abroad, even among “some countries that have ideological prejudices against” China…
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