What China's soft power means for European universities

During the decades since its re-opening to the world, China has undergone a massive reformation of modernisation and political influence, and now holds high influence on the world stage. In contrast to classic Western hegemony, China is continuing to amass global influence through non-traditional (and frequently criticised) methods and for reasons other than simply bettering the global landscape.

In any case, the world is taking notice, particularly recently in the world of international education, where the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, is focusing on international education as a means of soft power. Study abroad has frequently been described as a means of soft diplomacy, and China is taking advantage of this unique position to further its political interests.

Soft power, education and the Chinese context

To understand China’s use of international education as a tool of political influence, the ‘China Model’ and the history behind it must be explained. As explained by Mingjiang Li in his 2009 book, Soft Power: China's emerging strategy in international politics, the China Model refers to the unique way that China cooperates with countries and consolidates soft power.

The foundations of this model began in 1953 with the principles put forth by then premier Zhou Enlai to soothe tensions between the PRC and India, founded on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: respect for sovereignty (territorially and politically), mutual non-aggression, non-interference, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. These five principles remain the foundations for policy to this day.

Over the decades China has developed a pattern of development to grow its soft power, which comes in three phases:
  • • Phase one begins when, after locating a region for influence, investment begins, usually on infrastructure or a new market such as green energy.

  • • In phase two, after economic development is bolstered in the target region through bilateral trade, agreements are signed and regional councils are appointed to ensure success of current and future collaborations.

  • • Cultural diplomacy is the last step in helping secure Chinese influence in phase three, which is usually done through the promotion of awareness and participation in Chinese language and culture through the establishment of Confucius Institutes, co-founding of universities and language schools and the provision of scholarships for local students to study in China and further develop their human capital.
Throughout each step of the process, China maintains a stance of non-aggression and non-interference in the respective nation’s political issues.

China already has numerous bilateral trade agreements with several countries and a number of regional councils (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, to name a few), awards tens of thousands of scholarships to students from these regions, and has established hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide.

Since receiving this influx of educational assistance and collaboration, recipient nations (or rather, collaborators) have become more and more aligned with the PRC’s goals, from several African nations withdrawing recognition from Taiwan in response to the One China Policy to Greece’s refusal to condemn human rights violations by the Chinese government.

Soft power as a concept has existed in international relations for decades and is defined by Joseph Nye as cultural industries, influences and a way to spread influence and build image and has the effect of inspiring cooperation, admiration and emulation of the influencing county’s culture, ideology and values.

Much noise has been made about the lack of subtlety and the strategising of China’s outreach in comparison to Western counterparts, especially with regard to developing areas such as Africa and Latin America.

Soft power has traditionally been thought of as anything that doesn’t involve an obvious or aggressive means of coercion, but a wider definition could be made which sees soft power as a subdued use of power – it’s not the means but the motivation behind the means.

Although the tendency may be to view China’s growing influence as a side-effect of its soft power, it is instead a carefully cultivated sense of trust and familiarity.

Unlike the West, China has cultivated the uncanny ability to cooperate with states regardless of their political or cultural similarity to the People’s Republic. Sealing the deal by helping nations raise their human capital through education is the last phase of Chinese influence. In spite of this, there exists a dearth of literature on the soft power of international education, rather, it’s an assumed feature.

China and international education

China has risen to prominence as both a source of international students and as a popular destination for them. Earlier this year, the Chinese Ministry of Education released an official document regarding its ‘opinions’, stating the intent of their latest initiative of international education reform as expressly to further the reach of China's soft power and serve its national interest.

Chinese investment in internationalised education extends to the top government level, with a conscious understanding that education is a means of investing in the population and student mobility is a chance to influence the next generation.

China has built up its own universities to compete with ‘world-class’ institutions through Project 211 and Project 985, spreading access to Chinese language and culture learning, as well as encouraging their own students to study abroad. Education is a crucial step in the exercise of Chinese influence.

China looks towards Europe

After having measured success with their aid model and extensive geopolitical influence, China looks towards a new theatre – the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, or CEE.

In 2012, China started its 16+1 initiative, outlining its plans for investment and cooperation with the 16 Eastern European countries that make up the CEE. Of these 16, five key states – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Romania – all have the potential for growth and are major gateways to Europe.

China does not make efforts to invest in a region without considerable strategic gain. So what does Eastern Europe have to offer China? While Africa has plenty of natural resources, what Europe lacks it makes up for in access to established universities, equipment, (relatively stable) infrastructure and new markets.

Following its previous patterns in Foreign Direct Investment and Overseas Direct Investment, China began ‘going out’ into Europe as far back as 2008 in the southern European states of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, all members of the European Union. By 2014, China had invested €4,750,000 (US$5.5 million) in new industries, particularly green energy projects in those countries.

Not surprisingly, the EU has historically looked upon Chinese investment with scepticism. Many of China’s previous target nations have been areas of unrest and disenfranchised by Western efforts and colonial history, making Chinese aid and collaboration all the more appealing.

With tensions rising between several of the CEE countries, including the key states of Poland and Hungary, the pattern of influence is set to be repeated in Europe, and will lead to fierce competition with the EU.

Already China has rolled out its latest One Belt One Road initiative, the Belt and Road Alliance for Industry and Education Collaboration, to facilitate cooperation and dialogue between the countries in the 16+1 initiative. Through this programme and others like it, China seeks to encourage economic bilateral agreements, build education capacity in Eastern Europe and boost the ranks of its universities.

This comes at a time when several key nations are facing sanctions from the EU for not allowing migrants within their borders, despite voting against resettlement quotas, with the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó, going so far as to call it blackmail.

By targeting disenfranchised nations within Europe, it would seem that China’s relationship with Europe is already leaving phase two and entering phase three of China’s pattern of influence: as recently as this summer, Greece refused to condemn Chinese expansion into the South China Sea after receiving assistance in the face of the EU’s extensive austerity measures.

Europe under Chinese influence

Following the establishment of a regional cooperation forum and the construction of a few more Confucius Institutes in target locations, the next phase of influence will begin.

There are 10,000 scholarships per year sponsored by the Chinese government for students from ‘relevant countries’ to pursue studies in China, and a number of ‘Silk Road’ Scholarships that are managed by local governments and institutions.

It can be expected that these scholarships will be extended to students within Eastern Europe, attracting them to the improved universities (Projects 211 and 985) with professional exchanges and targeted investment to follow. China has already launched a ‘Chinese Ambassador Scholarship’ for students of Mandarin in Romania.

Regionally, this will stoke extant suspicion from the EU and further raise questions about external influence in the region, especially with regard to Russia. Of course, precedence states that China will not rush into a country that would put it in significant conflict with a close neighbour, no matter how high the investment potential.

By funding the infrastructure, the economy and finally the education of their target countries, China is gaining influence through its own special brand of soft diplomacy. As a result, previously disenfranchised nations are finding themselves more complicit in China’s interests.

The faster that China invests in education and spreads its influence, the quicker the interests of these member states will turn in China’s favour and potentially against the EU’s.

China is on a mission Westward, aiming to claim the hearts of the people rather than territory. Europe would be wise to take note.

Ingrid Hall is a graduate student of international education at the George Washington University with the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, United States. Her background in international studies has encouraged her to look at the political implications of international education and how they may be remedied.