When US anger rises at China’s Confucius Institutes, Southeast Asia thinks of the consequences

Chinese and US flags flutter near The Bund, before US trade delegation meet their Chinese counterparts for talks in Shanghai, China, July 30, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

For the past three years, Cavin Cheong has been sending his two primary school-aged children to the Confucius Institute (CI) in southwest Singapore for weekly Chinese enrichment classes.

He said the two – aged seven and nine – liked the learning environment and teachers there, and they also attended a Chinese cultural camp at the end of each year.

“My kids are exposed to various cultural activities like martial arts, use of abacus, Chinese painting and calligraphy, as well as various Chinese festivals and celebrations,” the 46-year-old added.

The Singapore Confucius Institute is a tie-up between China’s Centre for Language Education and Cooperation, an organisation affiliated with the Chinese education ministry formerly known as Hanban that runs the CIs, and the city state’s Nanyang Technological University.

It is among the hundreds of CIs around the world that have in recent months faced growing scrutiny, following assertions by US President Donald Trump that they are part of Beijing’s propaganda and influence operations.

Asked whether he was worried that the learning centre could be acting in the interests of the Chinese government, Cheong brushed it off. “This has been taken out of context and policitised,” he said.

Still, the Trump administration in August designated the Washington-based Confucius Institute US Centre as a foreign mission of the Chinese Communist Party , meaning it would be required to submit reports to the American government about its funding, personnel and curriculum.

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in September said he hoped all Confucius Institutes on American university campuses would be shut by the end of 2020, noting what he said were “risks” associated with them.

There are 75 Confucius Institutes in the US, according to the US Department of State website, 65 of which are on US university campuses, with the rest functioning as stand-alone organisations.

Analysts suggested that the operations of the institutes in Southeast Asia could, in some ways, alter locals’ perceptions towards China – even on contentious issues like the South China Sea territorial disputes – through their expansive list of programmes and outreach. But they also noted that the attacks on the institutes by Western countries would hardly dent interest in local communities in the region for their services.

Soft power play

Confucius Institutes have been set up throughout the world over the past 15 years to promote Chinese language and culture through classes and institute-issued textbooks. The network is seen as an important tool for China in promoting its image and project its soft power.

The first was established in Seoul in 2004, and by 2018 there were 548 institutes in 154 countries, most of them housed at universities. There were also nearly 2,000 Confucius classrooms in primary and secondary schools.

Neo Peng Fu, director of the lone Confucius Institute in Singapore, estimated that among them, 40 were in Southeast Asia – 16 in Thailand, eight in Indonesia, five each in Malaysia and the Philippines, two each in Cambodia and Laos, and one in both Singapore and Vietnam.

Neo said the CIs had three primary areas of focus: language teaching, teacher training and vocational training. The institutes have different courses that cater to the varied needs of the local populace, including university students, businesspeople and even government officials, he added.

The CIs in the Philippines, for example, offer classes for officials in the foreign affairs ministry, immigration department and port authority, while the centres in Indonesia offer lessons for those in the defence, trade and aviation ministries, Neo said.

“We have seen that Confucius Institutes do quite a great deal of work [and] their operations do make an impact,” added Neo, a historian by training who spoke recently at a panel discussion on Chinese immigrants in Southeast Asia organised by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“Language competency could be a skill of high market value” and “present locals with enormous opportunity for gainful employment,” he said, given the increasing presence of Chinese businesses in Asean countries as trade between the two sides rises.

In the first half of 2020, the Asean region overtook the European Union as the mainland’s top trading partner, in part due to the US-China trade war , which forced Beijing to rethink its global supply chain.

This also explains why most Asean nations have set up CIs, suggested Irene Chan, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“China’s rise depends on securing its dominance over the smaller states at its doorstep,” Chan said, arguing that as facilitators of cultural exchange, the institutes had a strong role in promoting trade cooperation between China and countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative , referring to China’s ambitious plan to boost trade and connectivity in the region.

Another key reason Southeast Asian nations have embraced the institutes, she surmised, is because of large populations of ethnic Chinese in these countries and the rapidly growing population of new Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia.

Neo also said that the work of CIs in the region extends to the organising of cultural activities for local communities, noting how the centres in Malaysia hold annual Chinese chess tournaments, for example, drawing hundreds of young chess lovers.

Harryanto Aryodiguno, an assistant professor in international relations at President University in Bekasi, Indonesia, added that the Confucius Institutes in Indonesia not only offered Mandarin classes but also served as a bridge for Chinese and Indonesian cultural exchanges. Some common classes, he said, include Chinese martial arts such as wushu, as well as other Chinese performing arts.

But he said it had not been entirely easy for Confucius Institutes to be set up and continue operating in Indonesia, where more than four-fifths of the 270 million population are Muslims.

“Everything related to China is and will be very sensitive in Indonesia,” he said, adding that some Indonesians consider Confucianism a “religious sect”, which is why the CIs are better known as “Mandarin Language Centres” in Indonesia.

Swaying locals' perception

Even though the Chinese government has maintained that its Confucius Institutes are not foreign missions and has instead accused Washington of “smearing” its reputation for suggesting that they are, some academics have not dismissed the possibility that the CIs shape the way locals view the Chinese government.

Lourdes Nepomuceno, a professor at the University of Philippines Diliman and director of the Confucius Institute there, said a study she had worked on last year found that the exposure to Chinese culture and language offered by the institutes had altered Filipino students’ perceptions towards issues involving China, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea .

The Philippines, together with three other Southeast Asian states and Taiwan, count themselves as claimants to various areas of the South China Sea.

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In 2016, The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines that there was no basis for China’s nine-dash line that it uses to demarcate its claims to most of the waterway, and concluded that China had unlawfully built an artificial island in Philippine waters.

The study by Nepomuceno surveyed 25 undergraduate and postgraduate students who took Mandarin classes and went on study tours of Beijing and Xiamen, giving the students an opportunity to understand the country and Chinese people.

The study was done through a series of qualitative in-depth interviews and focus groups, and compared students’ observations before and after their involvement in the CI programmes.

Even though Nepomuceno said some of the students still did not “fully” support China after the immersion programme, they remained “neutral to somewhat positive on their views on China and the Chinese”.

In the same vein, Nepomuceno said, several top officials in the Philippines felt the CIs had too much political clout, including retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who last April called for the closure of the institutes.

In Indonesia, Aryodiguno said, most students at CIs were thankful for the opportunity to see China from a Chinese perspective and experience Chinese culture. He said: “They can see the positive sides and developments of China, which have been considered negative all this time or have always been considered sensitive.”

He said many Indonesian students at the institutes had “heard good things about Chinese Muslims, and they were trying to help speak the truth”, from China’s perspective, regarding conditions for Muslim Uygurs in the Xinjiang region.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said that while the role of the institutes was ostensibly to promote Chinese culture, it was “obviously reasonable” to see that the version of Chinese culture being promoted was one that had Beijing’s official sanction.

He said recent research from the US suggested that institutes in places that were already cautious about China provided students with a perspective of Beijing’s position and how it differed from other perspectives.

Conversely, for environments where there is little prior knowledge about China, the Confucius Institutes there function as a “starting point” for understanding Chinese culture in ways consistent with Beijing’s views.

Describing the CIs as “official channels that teach state-approved curricula”, Chan, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that the facilities had “some potential” to influence locals, especially children, youths and young adults, but added that their reach had been somewhat limited due to relatively low enrolment numbers.

PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Resistance afoot?

Neo, the director of Singapore’s sole Confucius Institute, said that out of the 40 CIs in Southeast Asia, a majority of them – 25 – were founded between 2005 and 2010, and the remaining 15 were set up from 2013 to 2019.

He was quick to add, though, that this dip in numbers did not represent a dwindling interest among Southeast Asian states. Rather, he said, it could be the result of “a decision by China of not wanting to increase the number of institutes,” since Beijing had earlier set a global cap of around 500 institutes.

The setting up and maintenance of a Confucius Institute, he said, meant a long-term financial commitment for both Beijing and the host institute, and while some local communities in Southeast Asia had requested that centres be set up for their regions, it was “unrealistic” to expect China to accede to every request.

He also said that recent developments included some form of “rebranding” effort for the CIs.

In July, the Chinese education ministry sent a directive to agencies saying that Hanban had changed its official name from Confucius Institute Headquarters to the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation.

The move came after the US accused the institutes of promoting Communist Party propaganda, although analysts have said that the move was unlikely to bolster global perception towards the institutes.

Even though it remained to be seen whether changing the name of the parent organisation would help CIs, Neo described it as a “positive development”. “It shows that China is not dogmatic but responsive to challenges confronting her ... she is willing to adapt to changing circumstances,” he added.

Benjamin Ho, an assistant professor of the China programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that while the Trump administration’s attack on CIs might have bruised their reputation in the West, that was probably not the case in Southeast Asia.

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Chan, the associate research fellow at the same programme, concurred, likening this to how the boycott of Huawei Technologies and Chinese firms for the 5G networks in the Westhad little effect on the decisions of Southeast Asian states in choosing Chinese operators for their networks.

Chan added that even in past instances where Southeast Asian governments had shown resistance to Chinese influence this was not targeted at CIs alone.

Indee, many countries in the region have set up CIs in part to foster better ties with China. Singling out Singapore as an example, Ho said the city state counted on its single Confucius Institute as one of the many ways to “generate goodwill and positive perception” towards China.

“Also, given the familiarity of Singapore with Chinese culture and ideas, what is taught in the Confucius Institute would not be something controversial or perceived as an instrument of the Chinese state, unlike in the West,” he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.