Confucius Institutes increase as another opens in Djibouti

China is rapidly expanding its language and cultural centres – known as Confucius Institutes – in both number and capacity in Africa, in a move that appears to harness language diplomacy to serve its broader geopolitical and economic agendas. The Djibouti institute is the latest one to open.

This comes at a time when several of these Beijing-funded centres, based on Western university campuses, have been closed down or restricted amid concerns over foreign interference on campuses.

In its latest move China has inaugurated the Djibouti Confucius Institute in the capital city of Djibouti.

Located at the industrial and commercial high school of Djibouti, the first Djibouti Confucius Institute has been jointly established by the Chinese Sichuan Normal University and the Djibouti National Education and Vocational Training Department.

This follows shortly after an announcement earlier in 2023 that a Chinese company will be building a spaceport valued at US$1 billion on the territory of the small East African state – one of several Chinese projects mainly focused on improving infrastructure.

In another development around these centres, the Confucius Institute in Zimbabwe, which was voted the best on the continent in 2013, and was the first to have local lecturers with formal training to teach Chinese, now accepts only Zimbabweans with PhDs to teach at the institution.

An estimated 16,000 students are believed to have been trained at the institute, which recently celebrated its 15th year of existence and was set up at a time when Western sanctions were crippling Robert Mugabe’s government and forced him to look toward China for support. Mugabe’s wife Grace was among the first to learn the language and had Chinese professors visiting her at home.

However, commentators and studies continue to raise concerns over whether meaningful learning takes place at the institutes, the unequal cultural exchanges these sites embody, and their potential for promoting anti-democratic world views.

Confucius Institutes in Africa

61 Confucius Institutes have been established in 46 African countries, according to a 2022 article “Behind the rising Chinese fever in Africa”. Unlike the trends in the West, none of the institutes, to date, have been closed. The first one was set up in 2005 in Nairobi, Kenya.

South Africa, with six Confucius Institutes, has more institutes than any other country in Africa.

A total of 16 countries in Africa have incorporated the Chinese language into their national education systems, and about 30 universities have established Chinese majors.

Many students who have pursued language training at institutes later on continue their studies in China, according to Tariro Karen Saini, a Zimbabwean research scholar based at the College of Education at China’s Hebei University.

Christopher Mutsvangwa, spokesperson of the ruling ZANU-PF, who was the spokesperson when the institute in Zimbabwe was set up, said China had been a friend in all aspects.

“From defending Zimbabwe at the United Nations to supporting us in higher education, China has been an all-weather friend. We have many of our people training in China right now, using higher education to deepen our ties that are dating back to the years of the liberation struggle,” he said.

Hussein Askary, the vice-president of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden, a non-profit association which advances China’s development agenda, told University World News that these institutes focused on Chinese culture, history and people, and represent “one of the most important vehicles of people-to-people communication between China and other nations”.

Askary said he has noted that the numbers of African youth learning Chinese and wanting to study at Chinese universities are increasing.

“This is an indicator of the kind of activities that the Confucius institutes are excelling in,” pointed out Askary, who is the co-author of the August 2022 study “China-Africa Belt and Road Cooperation in Education: Development and Prospects”.

Questions about the nature of exchanges

However, studies that have outlined the negative impact of Confucius Institutes (CIs) in Africa have alluded to the power imbalance between China and host countries.

An October 2022 study “African Agency within Confucius Institutes? Challenges to equal cultural exchange between CIs and African host countries” stated that “African agency in the CI model is not prioritised by the Chinese”.

The study states that “As they currently stand, due to lack of oversight, limited input from hosting institution faculty members, and a strategy of valuing breadth over depth, CIs fail to create equitable cultural exchanges with African host countries.

“CIs do not develop meaningful skills that make African students competitive in the marketplace which is why most aim to go to China: to truly learn. Further, students and faculty members alike express frustration about the collaborative elements of the institutions,” according to the study.

It also focuses on the external influence on curricula and resource allocation as well as the possible undermining of local languages.

“These aspects combined prove that CIs are not as efficient as they were supposedly intended,” the study concluded.

Additionally, a 2022 study “A Foucauldian Power Analysis of China’s Confucius Institute in Africa: Power, Knowledge and the Institutionalisation of China’s Foreign Policy” indicated that analysis of empirical data collected from seven CIs in four African countries showed that the CI’s power structure is predominantly controlled and supervised by the Chinese side of the partnership.

“Power operations of the CI includes not only the Chinese language, culture and other positive knowledge regarding China, but also a collection of regulations, rules and orders that ensure the implementation of the CI’s power intentions,” it stated.

The study indicated that CIs seem to advance the institutionalisation of China’s foreign policy towards Africa.

Askary, in response, said Western institutions have “invaded” developing countries through NGOs, bloggers, and direct political interventions against governments in Africa by supporting the opposition to these governments.

As a result, academic research has also become ‘tainted’ by a bias against China and turned a blind eye to American, British, and European Union misdeeds in Africa and other continents in the Global South, said Askary.

Exposure to an anti-democratic world view

Rosemary Salomone, a professor of law at St John’s University in New York in the United States, told University World News that Confucius Institutes have been met with criticism, especially in the United States, for allegedly restricting what teachers can discuss in class and for a lack of transparency in their agreements with universities.

“What is worrisome is that, unlike their counterparts in the US and Europe, African universities are more dependent on Chinese resources and may have less bargaining power on governance and academic content,” Salomone indicated.

“For young Africans, Chinese language skills translate into jobs with Chinese companies and Chinese-run projects, including construction sites, or with African companies trading with China,” Salomone said.

“Yet education conveys not just skills and knowledge, but also ideals,” added Salomone, who is the author of the 2022 book The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language.

“Looking ahead, given the rapid growth in young Africans now under the age of 25, Confucius Institutes can potentially expose a sizeable segment of the population on the African continent to a worldview that undermines democracy and respect for human rights all in the name of economic growth and mobility,” Salomone pointed out.

Philip Olayoku, the coordinator of the West African Transitional Justice Centre in Nigeria, told University World News the institutes “are current expressions of Chinese soft power and part of efforts to implement China’s belt and road developmental initiative.

“China often projects equitable partnerships in its relationships with other countries, and so African countries must assert their stakes in such partnerships, including by being intentional in projecting their cultures to China and the world,” Olayoku added.

According to him “Africans must devise policies to start teaching their languages and cultures at different levels.”

Olayoku is the author of the 2022 study “The dynamics of learning Chinese in Nigeria and South Africa”.

Dr Takavafira Zhou told University World News that the institutes are expressions of Chinese imperialism in Africa.

They “prepare Africa to accept Chinese looting, wrecking, syphoning, and plundering of continental resources under the guise of friendship, and support of African thuggery, thievery and violations of human rights by African dictators,” he said.