Chinese cultural institutes, called Confucius Institutes (CI) are on the rise in Africa, with 54 CI on the continent spread across 33 of Africa’s 54 countries. The breakdown of which can be viewed on Statista, with South Africa notably hosting the most CI with six. These Confucius Institutes commonly partner with local African colleges and universities through the Chinese government’s language and cultural agency Hanban. Additionally, while the CIs are hosted by African universities, they are funded by the Chinese government through Hanban and provide these classes at a subsidized cost for the students.
Such cultural institutes are not uniquely a Chinese invention in Africa. The continent has hosted institutes such as the French Institute Français and the UK’s British Council since the early 19th century. Such cultural institutes teach African citizens in the language of their respective countries as well as their history and society. However, the Chinese Confucius Institutes are quickly becoming one of the most prevalent in Africa, second only to the French Institut Français in number on the continent as of August 2018.
Consequently, Chinese culture and language have become increasingly prominent in Africa as the Confucius Institutes make these subject accessible to young Africans seeking to position themselves well in an economy where according to the African Development Bank, “…420 million youth aged 15 to 35, one-third are unemployed and discouraged, while another one-third are employed vulnerably because of skills mismatch with labour market requirements.” Furthermore, African youths in countries like Uganda, which heavily interface with Chinese businesses, have found that Chinese language proficiency is key to opening up crucial opportunities. This has led many African nations, including Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa, to begin teaching Mandarin in their schools with Uganda even making Mandarin a compulsory subject in its secondary education. Thus, as the Chinese language and culture continues to spread across Africa, some academics, such as Senegal CI director and Asian history professor Mamadou Fall, have speculated that in as soon as 50 years Chinese may become the lingua franca of Africa.
However, economic opportunities for Africans are not the only thing exported to Africa through Confucius Institutes. As noted by the Journal of African East-Asian Affairs, “…the government-funded institutes are well-suited to the Chinese government’s efforts to promote, through language and other tools of soft power (such as the media), a self-tailored image of China vis-à-vis not only the one that had long been shaped by others, but also the one damaged by practice of Chinese migrants overseas, uncontrolled by the state.” Thus, China is using the Confucius Institutes to shape the global narrative surrounding China and Chinese affairs. This is seen in their treatment of sensitive human rights issues in China such as Tiananmen Square and the Uyghur genocide. As a result of their treatment of such topics, the Human Rights Watch published a report titled Resisting Chinese Government Efforts to Undermine Academic Freedom Abroad: A Code of Conduct for Colleges, Universities, and Academic Institutions Worldwide, where they advised “Refrain from having Confucius Institutes on campuses, as they are fundamentally incompatible with a robust commitment to academic freedom. Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration.” Additionally, due to similar concerns about Chinese influence from Confucius Institutes, the U.S. has required its roughly 100 Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents, meaning that they are “substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign entity.”
Ultimately, China was not the first country to provide cultural institutes to the African continent. However, the prominence of Chinese economic involvement in Africa has enabled Chinese soft-power expansion that has implications far beyond closer Chinese and African partnership as young Africans are exposed to Chinese narratives in addition to Chinese language and culture. Such exposure furthers China’s goal of achieving global normalcy and acceptance of its practices while minimalizing the concerns of global human rights advocates. While Africa’s closer economic partnership with China into the near future is likely unavoidable, it is critical that young Africans not accept Chinese narratives surrounding human rights carte blanche.