Guest Post: China’s Image Marketing: How Well Can Confucius Do?

By Tiger Zhang

Only 35 years ago, Confucius was widely condemned in China’s public rhetoric as a representative of the “corrupt segments of traditional culture” and a reactionary speaker of the hierarchical society that prevailed in China for at least 2 500 years. Not anymore. Today, he’s begun to serve singly as the “cultural diplomat” for China with such new titles as “the great mentor,” “representative of China’s traditional culture” and “advocate of a common faith and social order.” As part of China’s public diplomacy efforts, over 300 Confucius Institutes have been established in more than 80 countries so far. The number is expected to reach 500 by the end of next year and finally around 1 000 in all major cities around the world.

Although the Confucius Institute appears as basically a language training institution, its primary objective is to market the Chinese culture through various language programs and help strengthen the communications and friendship between China and target countries. As is perceived by the national leadership, the setup of the Confucius Institutes overseas is a “cultural diplomacy strategy,” the first time for China to seek to promote its cultural influence to the outside world in a deliberate and systematic way. It’s believed that, with such endeavors to “talk and merge with other cultural entities,” not only will the global mentality to “demonize China” be diminished, but China will gradually reconstruct its “cultural image beyond its economic power” as well, so that it can rally more support with time to offset the so-called “Western standards” or their “rhetorical hegemony” on the global arenas.

Despite the mushrooming of such institutes in recent years, it is yet to be accurately evaluated as to how effectively existing Confucius Institutes have fulfilled their loaded function, i.e., to spread China’s cultural influence around the world. Observations on some recent changes seem to point at a positive answer to the above question–from a growing number of foreigners beginning to study Chinese either in China or in their own countries, to the ever higher importance the international society is attaching to China’s participation in global governance, and to the apparently less biased reporting of the Western media on the most recent Xinjiang Uighur riot. However, it is difficult to determine which is the key factor in generating these changes–China’s astounding economic power, recent opening and reform of its international reporting system, or the Confucius Institutes? What can be certain is that such institutes are welcome in many countries, especially developing countries, at least in part because they are usually accompanied by a certain amount of ODA, or other aiding programs, and thus meaning more direct benefits for the local communities.

Contrary to the uncertainty in determining its distinct effect, there exist four quite certain weaknesses in the current running of Confucius Institutes: first, compared with most other major powers, China spends relatively little on such cultural sectors. For example, the British Council, a cultural diplomacy apparatus aimed to promote the British culture overseas, receives 189 million pounds in the 2007-08 fiscal year while making another 200 million by various teaching or examination services. In the same period, China spends only 1.6 billion RMB (roughly 160 million pounds) on promoting Chinese around the world. For each Confucius Institute, China can only provide funding between 350 000 and 700 000 RMB (less than 70 000 pounds). In fact, the Confucius Institutes in some countries have to recruit more local students than preferred– simply to make ends meet.

Second, the Confucius Institutes face great pressure from both within and outside the country. Domestically, there’re some people who believe it’s a waste of money (and it is indeed sometimes!) to set up so many institutes in developing countries, especially when the vast population of a country are still struggling against starvation and instability of life; internationally, there’re also many people who believe that such expansion of Confucius Institutes marks the beginning of China’s scheme on “invading with culture” or “exporting ideology.” Indeed, under such pressure and with the fact that the Chinese government is always the most important–if not the only–initiator and sponsor of such institutes, the more Confucius Institutes, the more “China threat” concerns.

Third, Confucius Institutes can hardly appeal to the target public in a comprehensive way, as they are still largely confined to language training programs. Although the grasp of a language is the foundation for lasting communications, yet a focus on the language rather than the rich culture and ongoing experience behind it could do little more than molding a vague and remote image of China and its people. Even worse, due to the rapid growth in the number of such institutes around the world, some institutes have to run without a suitable curriculum, enough good teachers, or even general awareness of the local communities. As a result, there’re usually fewer visitors to the Confucius Institutes than to similar cultural institutions of many other countries, whether in developed communities like Berlin or in less developed ones like Dhaka.

Finally, and probably the most important, there may be too much wishful thinking on the real effect Confucius Institutes can play. In the Chinese view, if such Confucius concepts as “moderate virtues,” “seeking common grounds while tabling differences” and “harmony” can be conveyed through the institutes, then it will help China promote its vision of the “harmonious world,” thus creating a favorable international environment for its peaceful rise. However, the problem is that “harmony” or “moderation” simply sounds too idealistic for the Western public, as Christianity believes in the “original sin” of mankind and the Darwinist view of human society. Owing to the lack of appeal as mentioned above, it sometimes turns out that those who are new to Confucianism feel even more reluctant to buy such concepts. Furthermore, they may think this marketing practice provides clear evidence of China’s intention of “cultural invasion.”

In view of these four weaknesses, one can reasonably doubt how well the Confucius Institutes can do to expand China’s cultural influence around the world. Should Confucius come back to life, he might as well feel himself unfit for this much bigger and more divided world today.

Tiger Zhang is a research fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and board member of Journal of Political Marketing, a SAGE publication.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on global engagement.