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Confucius Institutes a win-win proposition

By Kenneth King | China Daily | Updated: 2018-08-21 06:46
Song Chen/China Daily

According to the Chinese Language Council (Hanban), there are some 54 Confucius Institutes in Africa-the same number as there are countries in the Africa. Most of the Confucius Institutes are based in universities or colleges.

There is a smaller number of Confucius Classrooms on the continent according to Hanban-just 27 in total. These classrooms mostly operate at the secondary school level but also in a variety of other language promotion institutions. In 2015, at the fourth annual conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg, South Africa, the agreed Framework for Action underlined that, "The Chinese side… will support more African countries in their efforts to establish Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms."

What can be said about the spread of Confucius Institutes in Africa since the first one was opened in the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in 2005? And what can be concluded on the patterns of spread in Africa of these two institutions, the Confucius Institutes and the Confucius Classrooms, as compared with their increase in North America, Europe, Asia and the Oceania?

The fact that there are 54 Confucius Institutes in Africa does not mean that there is one Confucius Institute in every African country. Far from it. Only some 33 African countries have Confucius Institutes, but the total comes to 54 since some countries, such as South Africa, have five, and Kenya four. In other words, about 20 countries on the continent don't have even a single Confucius Institute.

Confucius Institutes not controversial in Africa

What about Confucius Classrooms? Again, according to the Hanban data, there are 27 Confucius Classrooms in Africa, but they are to be found in just 15 countries. And their distribution is uneven, since Ethiopia and South Africa have five each, and Egypt three. So, just three countries account for half the Confucius Classrooms on the continent. Thus, the great majority of African countries don't have Confucius Classrooms.

There have been very few, if any, criticisms of or controversies over the presence of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in Africa. In contrast, there have been some high visibility criticisms of Confucius Institutes in the US, notably in relation to the closure of the Confucius Institute in the University of Chicago, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Europe.

What is particularly intriguing about the US criticism of the Confucius Institutes for infringing academic freedom and for promoting Chinese propaganda in the US is that so little of this attaches to the Confucius Classrooms. And yet there are some 500 Confucius Classrooms in the US. If the Confucius Classrooms were actually being used for propaganda purposes, it could be anticipated that there would be an outcry.

There would be more concern about this at the secondary school level than at universities, as pupils of secondary school age might be considered more impressionable. Yet there is no sign of such a reaction in relation to the 27 Confucius Classrooms in Africa, and the situation is not very different in the US or Europe.

Programs allow faculty, students to visit China

One of the greatest attractions of the Confucius Institute and Confucius Classroom programs is the chance the faculty and students get to visit China for a short period-often to the partner school or university for a period of two weeks. But equally or more important for the sustainability of both programs is the determination of Hanban to offer opportunities to learn Chinese as the second language in China.

It is of course extraordinary that last year, some 3,500 Chinese language teachers and more than 6,000 volunteers were sent from China to support the teaching of Chinese in Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms. But arguably more critical than these Chinese teachers and volunteers is the rapid creation of a cadre of local teachers of Chinese, whether in Africa, North America or Europe. This is proceeding apace, and is being encouraged by the offer of a whole series of Confucius Institute fellowships to study in China.

As each FOCAC approaches, commentators have always wondered: Will it really be possible for China to keep increasing the number of long-and short-term scholarships and training awards for Africa? It has always done so.

Today, when so many countries have turned their foreign and trade policies toward "my country first", it will be particularly challenging for China to maintain its very strong commitment. Not least when there are all the demands of the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, China has not been just a fair weather friend for Africa. It has been much more than that. So my money would still be on China continuing to encourage both Confucius Institutes as well as Confucius Classrooms, and on continuing to encourage more scholars and trainees to learn from and with China.

The author is emeritus professor of the University of Edinburgh. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

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