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The Manifestation of China's Soft Power Agenda in American Higher Education: The Case of the Confucius Institute Project in America


Along with the development of China’s economic and military power, China is perceived by its competitors as a threat to the international system. In order to have a “peaceful rise” and to project a benign national image to the world, China began taking a series of actions to market itself. The Confucius Institute project is one of the public diplomacy actions in education in response to Beijing’s “peaceful rise” slogan.

The Confucius Institutes are non-profit public institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China whose stated aimsare to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.The increasing number of Confucius Institutes has received world-wide attention. This phenomenon has also precipitated an important debate in America on Chinese’s soft-poweragenda. According to Joseph Nye, the founding father of “Soft-Power Theory,” soft-power is the power of attraction without coercion. Nonetheless, results from this study suggest that the Confucius Institutes create mutually beneficialconsequences for both China and America, andtend to promote educational opportunities and social justice in America.

This multiple case study is comprised of data from four of the Confucius Institutes in different geographiclocations in America (one from the Southwest, one from the Northwest, one from the East Coast, and the other one from the Midwest). Further data were also collected onother Confucius Institutes in the United States. Through document analysis, informal interviews, participant-observation, and semi-structured interviews, I primarily focused on the perceptions and beliefs from key personnel based in America, who set up and/or work for the Confucius Institutes in America.

My inquiry is guided by the following research questions: 1) What is the nature of the Confucius Institute? 2) Why would aU.S. host institution want to house a Confucius Institute? 3) What trends are evident toward this Confucius Institute in its host institution?The study aims to find out what the Confucius Institutes at American universities do, to what extent they serve as a political tool for China, what benefits are there for host institutions in America, and what the future trends of the Confucius Institutes are in America.

Across all four sites, staff members and key personnel suggested that the political influence from the Confucius Institutes is limited, as the programs offered by the Confucius Institute are low level; additionally, American Directors appointed by host institutions are in absolute leadership positions, ensuring the purpose and contents of Confucius Institute programs are strictly guided by the host institutions. This dissertation argues that the Confucius Institutes create a win-win situation for both China and the U.S. However, while the number of Confucius Institutes is growing aggressively in America and worldwide, the future of the Institutes abroad remains unknown. Its lack of self-sustainability, under-developed management from Hanban (the Confucius Institutes’ headquarters in Beijing), and unstable policy/funding resources from the Chinese government are the key issues that could hinder the Confucius Institutes’ longevity.

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