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Education and the exercise of soft power in China

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Education has come to play a much more prominent role in China’s international relations
  • This is reflected in part in China’s relatively recent position as the third leading destination for international students globally, after only the US and UK
  • It reflects as well in the growing global footprint of Chinese universities, both in international ranking tables but also in the form of offshore campuses
  • China’s expansion of educational ties with international partners is particularly evident in key emerging markets, including those in ASEAN and Africa

Soft power, the thinking goes, is a strategy of promoting the national interest by means of persuasion and attraction, as opposed to “hard power,” meaning the more overt exercise of military, political, or economic might.

Many countries, particularly major world powers, seek to balance the exercise of both types of global influence, and this is certainly true for China. In 2007, then-President Hu Jintao advanced the idea of soft power at the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, arguing that China needed to invest more heavily in a soft power strategy.

And indeed it has. China has spent billions of dollars in the years since on “soft” initiatives. These investments appear in the form of high-profile aid programmes for Africa and Latin America. But also by way of the extravagantly staged Beijing Olympics in 2008, a feat the country will aim to repeat in 2022 when it will also host the Winter Olympics.

Of particular interest to international educators, education has come to play an important role in the country’s soft power strategy as well. The government funds hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world for the advancement of Chinese language and culture. And as we have noted often, China has, in a relatively short period of time, become an important study destination in its own right.

From a modest base of foreign students in the early 2000s, China’s international enrolment had grown to reach 377,054 by 2014. This was enough to place the country as the third-largest global study destination, with a roughly 8% share of the world’s internationally mobile students, and leaving it well on track to reach a national target to attract 500,000 foreign students by 2020.

In a further reflection of China’s growing global influence, but also its commitment to play a greater role in international education, Chinese universities have figured more prominently in international tables in recent years and are well poised to claim higher positions still going forward. Stefan Kapferer, Deputy Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), speaking at a recent OECD conference in Singapore, said, “In the coming 50 years, we can expect to see a major shift of economic balance towards emerging economies, particularly those in Asia.”

Indeed, many observers have begun to appreciate Asia – notably Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and, of course, China – as a so-called “third pole” in a global higher education landscape that has been traditionally dominated by the US and Europe.

In keeping with the theme, Chinese education has expanded to new levels of internationalisation in recent years, particularly through the establishment of offshore affiliates of Chinese universities. These include the Global Innovation Exchange in Seattle, a high-profile collaboration between Tsinghua University and the University of Washington. And, as University World News adds, “Affiliates of other Chinese universities have already been established in other nations, including a campus of Soochow University in Laos, a branch of Xiamen University under construction in Malaysia and a joint lab sponsored by Zhejiang University and Imperial College London in London.”

Most recently, China joined the other BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa – in a new multi-lateral agreement for university collaboration. The agreement is meant to spur greater cooperation in research, postgraduate training, and scholarly publishing. But it will also reportedly lead to the establishment of a BRICS Network University as a new focal point for student mobility among participating countries.

Strengthening regional influence

In August 2015, the Chinese government hosted the 8th China-ASEAN Education Cooperation Week, an event focused on building educational ties with the key ASEAN trading block. “More and more people from the younger generations from both sides are learning each other’s language and culture,” said Chinese Minister of Education Yuan Guiren. “We are discussing to make 2016 a year of China-ASEAN educational exchanges.”

The Jakarta Post adds, “Nowadays, there are thousands of flights to and from China and ASEAN countries every week, [and] the number of Chinese students studying in ASEAN countries and ASEAN students studying in China now exceeds 180,000.”

At another recent regional conference, China announced major new aid and education investments for Africa. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held in Johannesburg in December 2015, saw Chinese President Xi Jinping announce US$60 billion in new funding and loan supports for Africa over the next three years.

China has emerged as Africa’s largest trading partner over the past decade,” reports University World News. “Trade volumes between the two rose significantly, from US$10 billion in 2000 to more than US$198 billion in 2012…Collaboration between China and Africa has recently been expanding to include higher education collaboration between Chinese and African universities, and academic and student exchange.”

President Xi Jinping announced a series of initiatives at the Johannesburg conference, all of which are meant to unfold over the next three years. These include the creation of 40,000 training opportunities in China and 30,000 scholarships for African students. The President has also announced plans for a network of vocational training centres and colleges in Africa, with the target of training 200,000 African technicians. China will further expand its support for visiting scholars and students under these new plans as well, with the goal of inviting 200 African scholars to visit China and 500 African youths to study in China each year.

“President Xi Jinping delivered a speech that raised the bar in China-Africa cooperation,” Erastus Mwencha, Vice-Chairman of the African Union Commission, said to the Xinhua News Agency. “He emphasised that our cooperation with China has entered a new phase and this is commendable. The most captivating part of President Xi Jinping’s speech was the announcement of 60 billion dollars grant and concessional loans to assist African countries address a number of challenges like infrastructure, health and security.”

For the moment, the President’s African address, and the new plans that will flow from it, will stand among China’s most prominent soft power investments in expanding its influence in the region. But they illustrate as well the increasingly important role of education in China’s international relations, and it will be fascinating to watch how these new initiatives influence the patterns of African student mobility in the years ahead.

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