Confucianism at large in Africa
By Bright B Simons
ACCRA, Ghana - A features writer for the Economist once insisted that the
Mandarin character for Africa means "wrong continent". This is perhaps because
there is a perception that the teachers have frequently been wrong-headed about
Africa, and have tended to get it wrong whenever they have moved out of their
comfort zones in trading and infrastructure development.
Such a view is not entirely right, and China has in recent years taken great
pains to show the world that it is a well-rounded emerging power with a
complete strategy for engagement in places like Africa.
Its Confucius institutes are an interesting feature in this show of
sophistication. The Hanban - the Chinese National Office for teaching Chinese
as a Foreign Language - began spreading them
from 2004 when it set up the first one in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
Top Chinese officials have made no effort to disguise the propaganda value they
perceive in the spread of the institutes, but so far very little in the way of
a coherent strategy has emerged as to how they can be integrated into the
mainstream of Chinese foreign policy, which nowadays is driven, as everyone
knows, by a mercantilist view of global politics and economics. Africa has not
been spared this ambiguity.
In March, the Confucius institutes headquarters' website counted 19 Confucius
institutes in Africa, with four of these classified as "classrooms" in existing
African universities, and another three in the offing. The tone of reports of
this nature tends to be self-congratulatory, with little indication of definite
educational outcomes or how such outcomes are being integrated into China's
broader international cultural cooperation effort.
In an article by Yang Qingchuan in November 2008 for China's Xinhua News
Agency, the author exemplifies the habit of exaggerating the craving for
Chinese cultural influence by recounting an apocryphal story of a US university
president who literally chased down a visiting Chinese official around the
United States with a groveling plea for the establishment of a Confucius
institute on his campus.
Yet, in many African countries where Confucius institutes operate, extensive
anecdotal evidence and empirical research in New Zealand and Australia appears
to suggest there has been a gross exaggeration of the demand for Mandarin and
related Chinese culture courses among students and professional learners.
The tendency to resort to exaggeration is most probably a symptom of a deeper
malaise of inherent confusion in China's cultural diplomacy.
The use of the "Confucius" tag is itself somewhat confusing. The rise of the
Chinese Communist Party was a negative reaction to the entrenchment of
Confucian thought in Chinese society. Furthermore, the hierarchical layering of
power and rigidity of moral precepts that are fundamental to Confucius' system
are thoroughly out of place in China's present vision of its role in a
fast-globalizing modern world.
Some have argued though that such a notion is simplistic, based as it is on an
over-refinement of the Confucian ideal. They contend that China's pursuit of
cultural diplomacy in Africa can be read in the light of Confucianism as long
as a sophisticated enough view of the matter is taken.
To see clearly, we need to move beyond our Eurocentric view of the world, and
see the Chinese effort as removed from the constant persuasion and suasion of
American or British allurement. We must see it instead as being driven by a
"ritual of solidarity", one that slowly induces an internalization of Chinese
relativism and thus makes recipients sentimentally predisposed to embracing
China rather than convinced of the logic in the mutual benefit of such
This, too, they argue is a paradigm of Confucianism; and one may look for
concrete symbols of it in the tools being suggested by the thinkers behind the
push of Confucius institutes in Africa.
The online virtual world project Second Life, for instance, has been mentioned
often, along with the proposal that African learners of Chinese receive their
first exposure to such 3D-enabled virtual worlds and such digital identity
extensions as avatars through Confucius institutes.
The principle is obvious enough: cosmetic inducements, when they last long
enough, can sink deep and become character-forming. This is the Confucian
notion of ritual at its most classic.
Yet, even if such a world view were viable, to move from the strategy to the
implementation will require significant funds.
The policy of the Hanban has been to support the rise of these institutes in
different countries with a flat US$100,000 annual grant, though in specific
instances it has given more. This is of course a management-deficient way to go
about implementing a multinational scheme.
The institute in Melbourne for instance is reported to operate on a budget of
$750,000, suggesting that there is a substantial source of alternative funding,
considering that Chinese government subvention is only a little more than 10%.
Confucius institutes in Africa will be hard-pressed to come up with even a
fraction of such sums, though their needs are likely to be higher in view of
the generally lower availability of infrastructure in their host institutions
and communities. Any development strategy for a cultural center that assumes
equivalent conditions for growth at the Kigali Institute of Education, the
University of Zimbabwe and the University of Melbourne cannot be anything else
The plan is to have 500 Confucius institutes next year, despite widespread
reports of shortages of teaching materials and instructors in existing
institutes. It is possible that the current $300 million cultural cooperation
budget (of which only 1% is earmarked for Africa) may be increased, but in
these times of economic peril that is far from assured.
Already, individual Confucius institutes in Africa and elsewhere are dabbling
more and more in cost-recovery, introducing stealth fees whenever they can. At
this early stage of the experiment, this does not bode too well. No wonder then
that it is hard to find an educator in Ghana who has heard of the Confucius
institute that is supposed to be active in this West African country.
The United Kingdom's British Council operated in many countries in Africa for
many years on government subvention before its centers acquired the necessary
brand recognition to be able to charge for their services. After implementing
cost-recovery in nearly all its centers on the continent, its reduced budget
still amounts to roughly $400 million. Cultural cooperation in whatever form
cannot be had for free. Something China should know after operating similar
cultural centers in places like Benin and Mauritius for almost two decades now,
with generally less than optimal results.
What is fascinating though is that even as China's mandarins scramble to
"confucianize" Africa, private and public-private initiatives are doing pretty
well at promoting China's image through education and cultural exchange, with
much less fuss.
Chinese institutions offering international MBA and similar courses are a
growing staple on the cultural and educational menus of many a rising African
student or young professional.
The China-Europe International Business School, a rare non-state educational
center in mainland China, has since 1994, when it was opened through
collaboration between the European Commission and the Chinese Ministry of
Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, been rather successful in extending its
reach beyond China into Africa. Its Executive Masters program is actually the
world's largest, and enrolls many Africans, some of them in campuses on the
Another rather successful program is the BiMBA at Peking University. Foreign
students patronize these international programs because they see in them a rich
value combination of: firstly, career enhancement prospects; secondly, lower
cost (compared to American and British equivalents); and, to top it up,
exposure to the inner workings of a rising superpower. And they will gladly pay
as much as they can afford for an educational and cultural experience of that
In 2001, there were 1,224 African students in China; by 2010, it is hoped that
scholarship and sponsored students alone will be about 4,000, and total numbers
may well exceed 12,000, many of them in private and/or independent
The likelihood of these spontaneously attractive institutions achieving
significant cultural diplomatic results notwithstanding, China's mandarins have
been late in recognizing their extreme importance in any serious respect.
Given more to ritual than substance, they have done little to make foreign
students, particularly those from Africa, feel at home, and thus even less to
manage the impact a stay in China is likely to have on perceptions of Chinese
culture and moral influence.
Dating from the Nanjing protests two decades ago, many foreign students claim
to be experiencing an increasing mood of prejudice, even in China's more
cosmopolitan megacities. Even in Beijing, polls continually reveal a lack of
interest among the citizenry in learning more about Africa, with a recent one
conducted by China Youth Daily showing an interest level of only 18%. A recent
report indicated an alarming rate in Africans leaving Guangzhou's famed
Chocolate city because of a perceived heightening of racial tension.
This confusion about China's and the Chinese people's real feelings towards
Africa cannot be glossed over by the mass distribution of copious quantities of
selected Confucian texts through so-called Confucius institutes.
As trade union opinion becomes increasingly hardened against the Chinese
presence on the continent, and migrants returning from China bring tales of
woe, China's mandarins would do well to move beyond the superficial and engage
the substance of their relationship with that most vital of constituencies in
the competition for African hearts and minds: youth and students.
Otherwise, all the scrambling around and high-sounding platitudes won't succeed
in preventing the mandarins from being wrong-footed by disgruntled observers of
their moves in Africa.
Bright B Simons is an executive at IMANI-Ghana, and the innovator behind
the www.mPedigree.Net platform.