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  • Confucius to Their Enemies: China’s Investment in Public Diplomacy

    Anyone who doubts the value of money spent on competition in the world of ideas – a key aspect of public diplomacy – needs to take a look at what the Chinese are doing in this field. Aspiring to promote their own model of governance, in opposition to that of the United States and the West, the Chinese are investing heavily in making friends overseas. Indeed, there is a real danger of the United States being out-done, for reasons of limited resources and a lack of strategy. The Chinese have both in spades.

    According to The Washington Times, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to account for the fact that China has been able to open 60 cultural centers – so-called Confucius Centers – hosted at universities across the country, such as the University of Minnesota. The centers endow chairs in Chinese language and culture studies and partner with existing university programs, creating hubs for Chinese cultural and political influence. China has established Confucius Centers in many Asian countries, making a Chinese presence felt in a way the United States simply does not. They also allow China convenient covers for “minders” of Chinese exchange student populations in the United States and elsewhere.

    The Chinese strategy goes back at least as far as 2003, when the Chinese Communist Party promulgated its White Paper “China’s Peaceful Development Road.” In Foreign Affairs magazine in 2005, Chinese strategist Zheng Bijian laid out the concept of ideological competition for all to see, “China does not seek hegemony or predominance in world affairs. It advocates a new international political and economic order, one that can be achieved through incremental reforms and the democratization of international relations.”

    By comparison, the United States so far has no – zero – cultural centers (or comparable institutions) in China. During a hearing in February, Lugar grilled Secretary of State Clinton on the issue, and was told that the United States does not have the money to do what the Chinese are doing. “On the Confucius Centers, the Chinese government provides each center with $1 million to launch, plus they cover operating expenses that exceed $200,000 per year,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of money in the budget, so we are limited in the numbers that we can do.” Directors at the Confucius Centers told The Times that their grants are more modest, in the $100,000-$200,000 range, and are often partnered with existing programs. Either way, the Chinese have found a model that works in free societies.

    Now, the idea that the United States cannot afford what China can afford is preposterous — with an economy three times that of the Chinese, it is hardly a matter of money. The problem here is priorities and access. In the FY 2011 budget, the U.S. State Department has asked for a modest $14.5 million to fund 8-10 American cultural centers – to serve the entire globe. And of course China does not allow the openness  for the United States to partner with existing academic institutions.

    Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the United States Information Agency, public diplomacy as an arm of U.S. foreign policy has received short shrift, the primacy of Western ideas being taken for granted. That is not good enough anymore.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to Confucius to Their Enemies: China’s Investment in Public Diplomacy

    1. Herb Cranford, Macon says:

      While the facts obviously validate your assertion that our State Dept. is behind the Chinese in respect to funding "cultural centers" or things that are comparable, I think your argument would have been more encompassing and therefore forceful if you had addressed overall American cultural influence. I think there is a need for government/State Dept. leadership on this issue of cultural influence, but I think the heavy lifting of cultural influence should be a job for the private sector. America's greatest influence is the ideas on which the country was founded, and those ideas are best conveyed by their results: Products of the Free Market. These products include popular music, fashion, cool stuff on the internet that an exchange student can see in America but not when he/she goes home to China, seeing Americans protest and Chinese suppressed, etc.

      My point is: I dont discount the merit of your argument. I think you overstated the effect of the disparity you pointed out, mainly because you did not account for the much greater, non-government driven cultural influence that the United States has on the Chinese, especially Chinese youth, and the world.

    2. Bob Maelstrom, Lanca says:


      Our entire western intellectual heritage is available online and in every library in the world. The Chinese are promoting their cultural heritage in their own way, which is not a threat at all in a world of free inquiry and expression, and that is the difference between the West and China.

    3. john brown says:

      Regarding public diplomacy as actually practiced by the Chinese embassy in Washington, may I bring to your attention my recent piece in the Huffington Post, "China's Public Diplomacy: Have You Ever Tried to Call the Chinese Embassy?"

    4. Marc says:

      Sadly what you have written here is right on the money. I am a US citizen who originally came from China. When I was visiting China in 2008, China tried to recruit me to work with their Confucius Center contacts. It was nothing criminal or illegal, but it definitely involves pro-China agenda. Some of my former classmates from China identified me as a valuable target to work with (I know that for a fact). Thankfully, I was expecting it and hence played dumb when they tried to ID me at the customs and pretended to be someone else with the same name. What happened to me was not unique. There are a lot of pro-China hacks living in the U.S. who are also in Beijing's payroll. What can we do? These idiots don't have to do anything illegal or criminal. My former Chinese classmate walks round proudly praising Beijing's land-grabbing, democracy-suppressing policy. She works in a big name college in the U.S. as a Chinese-American culutral liason, funded by Chinese government.

    5. Marc says:

      Read some other comments here. I personally don't believe China's purpose of overseas cultural influence is to get foreigners to see things the China way. Their main purpose is to get expat Chinese around them so that they would have agents ready to protest on their behalf whenever things like the Olympic Torch relay incidents happened throughout the world. Those mindless ex Chinese communist youths living overseas would come to their motherland's defense. All these is to create a harmony to suppress the 900+ million poverty stricken inner province residents of China. These 900+ million Chinese are worse off than before and they are ready to erupt. China knows that. Their leaders feel safer to have support from abroad among their own people. Every time when there is a crisis that threatens the communist power base in Beijing, they would use nationalism to diverse people's attention domestically. And they need as much help from overseas Chinese as possible to spread the rumor around when motherland needs them.

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