Confucius Institute masterstroke of soft power — Lee Yew Meng

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MARCH 30 — The first overseas Confucius Institute (CI) was set up in South Korea in 2004. It is a non-profit educational organisation dedicated to the promotion of the Chinese language (Mandarin) and culture.

And because their modus operandi is to operate within learning institutions, there are continued criticisms from encroaching on academic freedom to even espionage.

Confucius Institute (CI)

The institute was to be established in Malaysia in 2007. Although it was not clearly ascertained, it seemed the name “Confucius” could have been a contentious issue because it was finally set up two years later as Kong Zi Institute, Universiti Malaya (as host) or KZIUM, in short. Confucius is known in Chinese as Kong Zi or Kong Fuzi.

The great sage’s name was used purely for positive and easy brand recall. It had nothing to do with Confucianism per se. The institute in Malaysia is the only one which is named differently. I thought there was wisdom in Beijing for going along with it.

There are over 500 CIs in 134 countries, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the United States, there are over a hundred CIs.

Hanban, which is the colloquial abbreviation for National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, manages the CI programme. The Office of Chinese Language Council International (OCLCI) in turn governs Hanban.

Representatives from 12 state ministries and commissions sit on the OCLCI.

This has been taken as irrefutable evidence of state influence. And what is so incredulous about that, I ask. The People’s Republic of China is a one-party state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and practises political office succession different from any Western model.

CI maintains they are not dissimilar from Germany’s Goethe-Institut, France’s Alliance Francaise, UK’s British Council and Italy’s Societa Dante Alighieri, and like these entities, do not have a monopoly on overseas cultural promotion.

Western academics and journalists continue to be very critical of CI’s record on academic freedom, citing the restriction on discussions of the three T-words —  Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. There have even been suggestions CI’s real motive is “to subvert, coopt, and ultimately control Western academic discourse on matters pertaining to China."

The converse could also be true — there are individuals, cohorts and institutions targeting to restrict positive public perceptions of China, fearing China’s usurping of their traditional strangleholds on commerce, industry and education, for instance.

Even China’s teaching with the simplified Chinese characters rather than the traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan is seen as a goal to marginalise Taiwan in the battle for global influence. What if it is? Taiwan could choose to promote the simplified version even more aggressively. I think there is real fear of how China is succeeding with soft power using cultural diplomacy, ala Confucius Institute.


In KZIUM, there are 21 teachers and a co-director. Hanban pays their salaries and housing. UM provides the office facilities. Since its establishment in 2009, 7,000 students have undergone various courses, from Essential Mandarin for Travelling in China to Comprehensive Mandarin (Level 1-6). Last year, 2,700 students were trained.

The cultural programme in KZIUM ranges from health (Taijiquan, a martial art practised for both defence and health benefits), mental sharpness (Weiqi or Go, a board game noted for being rich in strategy), emotion (Guqin, the seven-stringed musical instrument, with a history of some 3,000 years), and skill in arts (calligraphy and Chinese painting).

Associate Professor Datuk Dr Azarae Idris, 58, was appointed the Malaysian co-director in 2010. He recalls there were only five teachers then. The affable Azarae, father of three and grandfather of a five-year-old, really enjoys this assignment as he sees it as a calling to further strengthen our growing “people to people” engagement. 

He also thinks there are loads of opportunities to develop entrepreneurship and create a “small-medium enterprise” (SME) culture among our Malay and Indian communities. 

Azarae, who has a PhD in Ecology Studies, has been attached to UM since 1990 and prior to the KZIUM posting was the deputy vice-chancellor (student affairs).

The co-director from Hanban is Chen Zhong, 43, an English graduate with a Masters in Lexicography. He had to explain it is the art of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries.

Chen is here with his wife and three-and-a-half-year-old daughter who was born in Nuremberg, Germany, his last posting before coming to Malaysia in 2013. 

Country co-directors serve between two to three years, and he recently got his one-year extension approved. He and the family truly enjoy their stay here.

His exuberance with the mission of CI was abundantly apparent. I had to ask — what makes you so proud of China? China has such a profound and rich culture, and so much wisdom to share, was his spontaneous response. When shared properly, humankind can only benefit, he added.


I am now beginning to think the Western-designed democracy is not the only answer. The vast geography, truly diverse people, and the 1.4 billion inhabitants demand a custom-made system. It appears they have consistently elected sensible, smart, and sincere folk into their 25-seat Political Bureau of the CCP Central Committee (Politburo).

And the transition for heads of government after tenure between eight to 10 years must have been key. After a long history of feudalism and the Mao era, they would be more familiar with “absolute power corrupts absolutely” than any society on earth. 

I don’t believe Confucius Institute exists for clandestine activities. Marxist, Leninist and Maoist principles have long been confined to the rubbish bin.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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