Inside Africa’s Confucius Institutes

This is a presentation I made on 20 November at the annual Africa-China Journalists Forum at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. It describes the investigation that took me to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania to be a fly on the wall in the classrooms where China’s Ministry of Education is helping to shape the way people think about the world’s next superpower

I’ll start by saying a bit about what exactly Confucius Institutes are, in case we’re not all equally familiar with them. Confucius Institutes – or CIs –are language and culture centres that are funded by Hanban, a Chinese state-run non-profit organisation that falls under the Ministry of Education.

They are often compared – by Hanban, and by outsiders – to the UK’s British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institute or France’s Alliance Française, which all teach and promote their own country’s languages, and receive government funding to do so. But one crucial difference is that CIs are based on university campuses.

In cases where universities don’t have their own Chinese courses in place, the CI will often double as the Chinese department. That means that the Chinese government is making decisions about those universities’ Chinese curriculum.

So, why am I mentioning that, or why does it matter? “They’re just teaching language,” people often say. But language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’d argue that language is inextricable from culture, and that the languages we speak (and think in) shape how we see and interact with the world.

As you would expect – and like Alliance Francaise and the others, to some extent – CIs teach a certain selective and rather shinily-packaged version of Chinese culture. Beginner students who can barely string a sentence together are required to memorise a list of China’s “great inventions”: the compass, gunpowder, and so on, just to give a quick example. The fact that they have a physical presence on campuses has been known to influence academic proceedings and on-campus activities, which has also led some US and Canadian universities to suspend their contracts with Hanban and close their CIs.

CIs are central to China’s global soft power campaign, which I’ll say more about a bit later. The first CI was set up in Seoul in 2004, and since then 516 have opened in 142 countries. Over 40 of those countries are in Africa.

All of this convinced me that it was important to find out what goes on inside CIs. What’s being taught, what’s not being taught? To what extent are CIs a microcosm of China’s relationship with its host country? And, most importantly – I think – how are CIs shaping ordinary Africans’ perceptions of China from the ground up? I didn’t get straightforward answers to all these questions of course, but I’ll share some of my observations, and the opinions I formed in the process.

University of Cape Town UCT_Upper_Campus_landscape_view
The University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus, where the CI is housed

I live in Cape Town, so I started my fieldwork by taking a couple of evening classes at the CI at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Being a student in a classroom really was the best vantage point for my research, I feel: it allowed me to be a fly on the wall, which is an enviable position. My Chinese skills meant that I could blend in during the classes, I could take as many notes as I wanted – and, often, I found that the content of the classes was as worth noting down as some of the more subtle dynamics at play.

Going undercover is a grey area that I’ve since discussed with several other media practitioners. Did I lie about being a student? Not exactly. I’ve spent several years being a Chinese student, I still take private lessons and, when I eventually take another HSK proficiency exam, I will formally be a Mandarin student again. I’ll more than likely enroll at one of South Africa’s CIs to do that, too.

Another advantage to this approach was that I was invited into CI teacher’s conversations – and, sometimes, their homes – by simple virtue of the fact that I spoke their language. To some extent, it gave me the benefit of both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective. It did also mean that later, I had to get consent to attach people’s names to quotes but, as I wasn’t writing an overly negative piece, it hasn’t been a problem so far.

To Zimbabwe

From UCT, I visited Harare’s CI, hosted at the University of Zimbabwe. Technically, I was a student visiting from UCT’s CI, which made it slightly easier to get permission to sit in on a few classes.

Statue of Confucius at the University of Zimbabwe's Confucius Institute

In the lobby, I was greeted by a well-polished bust of Confucius himself. I asked two students where I’d find the university administrator who had confirmed my visit, but they didn’t know.

“Maybe she’s the South African,” one student said to the other, and I awkwardly interrupted, “Yup, that’s me”. Their class was the first I was scheduled to sit in on, so they showed me to the classroom.

I wasn’t expecting one Professor Mushangwe to be the Chinese teacher, but he gave me a very friendly Nihao, and quickly sized me and my Chinese skills up.

Professor Mushangwe was the first Zimbabwean to get a PhD in Chinese Linguistics, and he came across as an excellent teacher. This must be at least partly because he’s been through a similar language learning process, and can relate to Zimbabweans’ experience of it.

He asked me to introduce myself to the class in Chinese and, to my dismay, they clapped at the end. “Tamen gang kaishi”, he said – they’ve just started studying, which explained the applause.

Like some of the other CIs I visited, the University of Zimbabwe’s CI doubles as the Chinese department and offers credit-bearing courses. These were first year students taking Chinese as a major.

Professor Mushangwe teaching Chinese at the University of Zimbabwe

He called on the students to read Chinese sentences aloud from a screen as revision for their exams. One young woman in the front row raised her hand to answer almost every question.

Nancy Mufudza was one of several students I met who had her sights set on getting a scholarship to study in China. A few months later when she told me her parents couldn’t pay her fees anymore, I realised how much of an impact a scholarship would have on her and her family, and how that would influence their view of China too.

Like most CIs in Africa, the University of Zimbabwe's CI offers Chinese classes to the public in the evenings
Evening classes at the University of Zimbabwe’s CI are open to the public

Nancy, and virtually all of the students I spoke to in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, see Chinese language skills as a bridge to opportunity. Learning Chinese was the first step to working and doing business with China, they said. Several of them also said that the Look East Policy had been a factor in their decision to study Chinese.

The “Look East” Policy was originally a Zimbabwean government response to western-imposed sanctions, but it’s evolved to represent a broader trend within Africa to try and emulate the economic model which lifted perhaps as many as 800 million Chinese out of poverty. For people from African countries who consider themselves as part of this process, it’s only logical that they’d see special appeal in studying at the same Chinese universities that educated the engineers and surveyors and economists who transformed China.

Professor Mushangwe’s very last-minute decision to accept a scholarship from the Chinese Scholarship Council ended up changing the course of his career. He went to China to do his Master’s in Theatre Arts and, after a one-year Chinese course which he took as a condition of the scholarship, he saw opportunity everywhere. Seven years later he came back to Zimbabwe with a PhD in Chinese linguistics and co-authored the first Shona-Chinese dictionary.

In him, the University of Zimbabwe also gained a very pro-China member of staff who self-censors as a matter of course, and whose classes on Chinese culture never touch on politics, he said – even when politics would actually provide some useful context for students who are getting part of their education in China. Like the teachers who come from China to work in Confucius Institutes around the world, he is aware of the spoken and unspoken rules, and of which lines not to cross. That’s a pretty good return on the Chinese Scholarship Council’s investment, I’d say.

Several other staff members have followed in Professor Mushangwe’s footsteps, and their CI now has seven Zimbabweans in a team of about 18 Mandarin teachers. Other CIs also hope to train enough teachers to run their CIs’ Chinese courses, but Zimbabwe’s is the only one I visited where it’s already happening. It’s a model CI, and has won “CI of the year” twice.

And then to Zambia

The Chinese-built Confucius Institute at University of Zambia, Lusaka

This is the University of Zambia’s brand new CI premises, built by the Chinese government, completed last year.

I was fortunate in that my first visit to Lusaka coincided with the Chinese Bridge Competition, which, although it refers to Hanban’s annual Chinese proficiency contest, is also very much a Chinese culture-focused talent show.

There’s Chinese singing…

The 2016 Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition in Lusaka Zambia

Chinese dancing…

The 2016 Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition in Lusaka Zambia dancing and singing

And Chinese martial arts…

Kung Fu students at the 2016 Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition in Lusaka Zambia

Of course, foreigners demonstrating this degree of interest in Chinese culture during the contests also doubles as a very well-orchestrated PR exercise.

Cultural activities such as the Chinese Bridge Competition are always well-documented by Chinese media and government representatives
Cultural activities such as the Chinese Bridge Competition are always well-documented by Chinese media and government representatives

Soft power and Confucius Institutes

As I said at the beginning of this presentation, CIs are central to China’s global soft power campaign. For the first time, China is directly competing with the West for influence, and in the education sector, it’s winning. China is now the world’s most popular destination for Anglophone African students studying abroad, having overtaken the US and UK.

I don’t have figures on exactly how much China is spending on scholarships or initiatives like CIs in particular, but overall China spends around $10bn a year on building its image abroad. This varies from boosting aid outflows, to developing an international media network, and initiatives like the CIs which promote a certain version of China’s values, traditions, culture, and language.

Kung Fu is one example of how Chinese culture is improving China’s image. Zambia’s CI offers free Kung Fu classes four days a week, and now it has a troupe of martial artists who perform at CI and Chinese embassy events.

Master Liu teaches Kung Fu at the University of Zambia's Confucius Institute

Meanwhile, in Tanzania

Tanzania’s two CIs are only three years old, but demand for Chinese language courses is growing fast.

CI teachers already run courses in six other universities and four secondary schools. And, just like at universities, opportunities to visit China are regularly dangled in front of children and their parents as motivation for taking Chinese classes.

A Chinese graduate gives Tanzanian children their very first Chinese lesson in a Dar Es Salaam school in Tanzania

Exposing students to Chinese culture and language – particularly at a young age – has to be the most effective way of shaping people’s perceptions of China from the ground up.

Trouble in paradise

Of course, the opinions I’ve formed during my research aren’t shared by everyone. My concerns about the negative impact that CIs can have on academic freedom at universities and schools is just one example.

Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars in the US called on universities to close their Confucius Institutes. The University of Chicago’s CI was closed in 2014 after more than 100 faculty members signed a petition that expressed concerns about Hanban’s role in the hiring and training of teachers, which “subjects the university’s academic program to the political constraints on free speech and belief that are specific to the People’s Republic of China.” In 2014, organizers of a Chinese studies conference in Europe accused Hanban, a sponsor of the conference, of outright censorship after the Chief Executive of the world’s CIs had all the pages relating to Taiwan torn out of conference materials.

Although each university has different terms and conditions for partnership, Hanban typically commits to providing around $150,000 in start-up funding for the institutes in the US, which is followed by annual grants, plus textbooks and teaching materials. Hanban also pays for the salaries and airfares of the Chinese language teachers it sends, in many cases. The host universities are expected to offer support on one way or another, which may be in the form of office and classroom space, or staff’s time.

The recommendation to close CIs is specific to the US, but it also highlights the fact that an amount similar to $150,000 cannot be as easily forgone by a university in Zambia or Zimbabwe or Tanzania. And if you’ve just been presented with a brand new CI building, you’re obliged – and possibly legally required – to maintain the partnership.

A new lingua franca?

I believe that, within a couple of decades, China will succeed in making Mandarin one of several lingua franca in some parts of Africa. Whether you choose to see this as cultural hegemony, a “new world order”, or just an apolitical development or a practical response to the increase in Africa’s Chinese population is up to you.

In both Zambia and Tanzania I randomly overheard locals speaking to one another in Mandarin on a couple of occasions. I heard two young Zambian women chatting in Chinese in Lusaka airport (which they were presumably treating as a “secret language”), I heard two men in Zanzibar calling out to one another in the street in Chinese, and I saw a group of Tanzanian teenagers on a ferry trying to get a reaction out of a pair of Chinese tourists by speaking loudly in Mandarin.

Then one afternoon in a playground in Dar Es Salaam, a group of children were passing me on their way home from school. They stared at me, some giggled, some waved, but one child saw my foreign face and called out “Nihao!”

Is foreignness synonymous with Chineseness in some parts of Africa?

With Chinese investment, Chinese businesses, and Chinese immigrants all over the continent, in the next couple of decades, could the English “Hello” – which also comes from far away – be gradually replaced by “Nihao”?


The first of my series of articles on Africa’s Confucius Institutes was published by Quartz: “Confucius Institutes across Africa are nurturing generations of pro-China Mandarin speakers”


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