China’s language and cultural centers are growing faster across Africa than we thought

A Chinese language teacher speaks with students at the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos
A Chinese language teacher speaks with students at the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos
Image: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images
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Government-funded public institutes teaching Chinese language and culture are popping up across the globe as part of a stated push to improve the country’s cultural influence with a focus on “soft power“.

Since 2004 the number of Confucius Institutes in Africa has jumped from zero to 48,  according to the international consulting firm Development Reimagined.

Confucius Institutes are modeled on western cultural institutes such as France’s Institut Français, Germany’s Goethe Institute or the UK’s British Council. Such bodies have operated in Africa since the late 19th and early 20th century . The Alliance Français was established in 1883, the British Council was established in 1934. Despite entering 100 years late in the game, China is now also only second to France when it comes to the number cultural institutes worldwide. 

Confucius Institutes are set up through partnerships between a Chinese university, a host country university and the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), a language and culture promotion organization under China’s ministry of education. Hanban sends a Chinese director and language and culture instructors. 

Dr. Ishmael Mensah, the local director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, said that the goal of his institute is “to foster a closer collaboration between the Ghanaians and the Chinese”. He said that teaching Mandarin puts young Ghanaians in a “better position to interact with their Chinese peers.” Mensah noted that the classes offered are gaining popularity and teach roughly two thousand students per term at the university. 

Despite the fact China is building institutions like those European countries have operated for decades, it is their structure which distinguishes them from their western counterparts. The host university provides office space, teaching space and institutional support. The lecturers and funding comes from China and the  classes are taught in the context of the university’s curriculum.

As a result of this structure—an educational institute funded by a foreign government—they have become particularly controversial in the US where there have been allegations Confucius Institutes are being used to further Chinese government goals and compromising academic integrity. In 2014, University of Chicago refused to renew their contract with Hanban after failed negotiations regarding the content of the program.  In June of that year the American Association of University Professors issued a report urging universities to sever ties with Confucius Institutes unless they could renegotiate contracts guaranteeing the schools’ ability to control academic matters.

But on university campuses in Africa there is less pushback towards these departments. Hanban provides funding and materials, flies over Chinese teachers, and opens new buildings on often under-funded campuses.  Mensah said he sees no conflict of interest between a government-funded institution and academic freedom at the University of Cape Coast.

With regards western concerns that China might have an interest in promoting their view of world history or culture, he said the courses currently don’t focus on history and when it comes to culture the program “focuses on calligraphy, music and dance.”

There are also concerns Confucius Institutes are vulnerable to allowing the Chinese government to completely shape academic engagement with East Asia. While in the United States for example a Confucius Institute will be absorbed into an existing East Asian studies department, in many of the host African universities, the Confucius Institute is the only avenue for East Asian studies at the university.