Sie sind auf Seite 1von 18

Communication, Culture & Critique ISSN 1753-9129


The Sage as Strategy: Nodes, Networks,

and the Quest for Geopolitical Power in the
Confucius Institute
Randolph Kluver
Department of Communication, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, 77843-4231, USA

China’s “Confucius Institute” (CI) project, which has sought to establish Chinese language
programs around the world, has been widely criticized as strengthening China’s geopolitical
influence. This essay will examine the impact of the CI project by drawing upon Castells’s
theory of cultural nodes, which explores the power dynamics between and among nations in
a global, technologically oriented society. Specifically, the essay will argue that the Confucius
Institute project’s greatest impact lies not as a propaganda device, but rather in the attempt
to develop a network of “Confucian nodes,” or sites of symbolic Chinese cultural capital, to
enhance the geopolitical influence of China.


In 2004, the Office of Chinese Language Council International (hereafter referred to as

Hanban), a nongovernmental and nonprofit organization affiliated with the Ministry
of Education of the People’s Republic of China, launched a major initiative to pro-
mote the “Confucius Institute” (CI) project globally as a mechanism for the expansion
of Chinese language programs. This essay will examine the CI project as an attempt
to bolster China’s geopolitical impact by developing a global network of “Confucian
nodes,” or sites and audiences of linguistic and cultural competence. I will also criti-
cally appraise the concept of “soft power,” as defined by Nye (Nye, 2004) as the “power
of attraction,” or the ways in which nations assert their interests through cultural
appeal, rather than the “hard power” of military or economic force. The essay offers
a more nuanced model of geopolitical influence grounded in Castells’s (2009) under-
standing of “communication power,” but also while providing a necessary critique to
Castells’s overly optimistic view of networks. Finally, the essay will attempt to assess
the long-term impact of the Institutes from a perspective of nodes.
China’s attempt to build a global network of language centers is not unique, and
in fact, mirrors a long tradition in the West. The CI is not dramatically different in
intent or activities from other national attempts to build cultural influence through

Corresponding author: Randolph Kluver; e-mail:

192 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

language, including the Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, and the British Coun-
cil. Western nations for well over 100 years have created such centers in an attempt
to increase cultural and educational exchange, and presumably, to increase the attrac-
tiveness of their own cultural traditions (see Table 1). In multiple ways, the CI seems to
be modeled after these attempts at cultural diplomacy, but the CI project has been far
more prominent in recent years, largely because of China’s rapid economic and polit-
ical rise, but also because unlike the other institutions, which tend to be stand-alone
organizations within a host community, CIs are typically established at universities,
colleges, or local schools, leading to significant concern over propaganda work being
conducted through the Chinese institutes.

Soft power and China’s geopolitical influence

Since Nye’s (2004) articulation of “soft power,” a number of authors have supported
the contention that the CI project would indeed enhance China’s soft power. Nye
defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than
coercion,” as distinct from hard power, or the power of coercion (Nye, 2004). Soft
power, in contrast to the “hard power” of military or economic power, is constituted
by culture, values, policies, and institutions, and is manifested by the ability of a nation
to gain geopolitical pull through cultural values and ideals (2004). In recent years,
Nye has proposed the concept of “smart power,” by which he means the effective and
wise use of both soft and hard power, in the appropriate contexts, and to “counter the
misperception that soft power alone can produce effective foreign policy” (Nye, 2009).
China’s leadership has long been concerned about the international image of the
nation, as well as its relative political isolation. After the founding of the Peoples’
Republic in 1949, China found refuge from the West in its relationship with the Soviet
Union, but after the falling out between the two nations in the early 1960s, the nation
found itself largely isolated from any meaningful impact on global politics or culture.
Politically, China sought to build an advantage by positioning itself at the head of the
nonaligned movement and developing an image as the de-facto leader of the third
world. The United States and to a lesser extent, other Western nations, sought to dele-
gitimize China for as long as possible, a strategy that finally crumbled with Nixon’s
visit to China in 1972 (MacMillan, 2007), although it is still largely true that U.S. pol-
icy seeks to enhance the geopolitical and military powers surrounding China (such as
Japan and Korea) as a counterweight to Chinese influence.
Recently, these attempts have focused on building China’s geopolitical influence
by again strengthening ties with the developing world, but also, strikingly, by enhanc-
ing the global footprint of Chinese culture, developing media for a global audience,
and changing negative perceptions of the government. Chinese President Hu Jintao,
for example, has spoken at length about strengthening China’s soft power, including
its cultural heritage, but also in its socialist ideology, and even in developing Chi-
nese commercial brands for a global market (Hu, 2007). He has stated that one of
the primary tasks of the nation was to “identify the orientation of China’s cultural

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 193
Table 1 Cultural Diplomacy Organizations Globally
The Sage as Strategy

Number of
Administration and Year Number countries
Organization Sponsora legal standinga of launch worldwide hosting

Alliance Française Private organization Not-for-profit organization 1883 1,040 136

Cervantes Institute Spanish government public institution 1991 71 37
Goethe-Institut The German Foreign Office Association 1951 136 92
British Council Foreign and Commonwealth Charity and nondepartmental 1934 More than 255 131
Office, UK public body
Confucius Institute Ministry of Education, PRC Joint-administration between 2004 322 96
Chinese and overseas
Società Dante Alighieri Independent Nonprofit organization 1889 256 79
Instituto Camões Ministry of the Foreign Affairs, Public institution 1929 294 72
The Pushkin State Russian Moscow State University Teaching and research center 1966 NA NA
Language Institute

Note. Data derived from public websites of the organizations.

a Because of differing legal systems, sponsorship and legal standing do not always correspond directly.

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

Table 2 Number of Confucius Institutes, by Region (as of September 2012)

Confucius Institutes

Africa 21
Americas 130
Asia 77
Europe 100
Oceania 14

Source:, accessed September 14, 2012.

development, create brilliant new culture, and enhance the international competitive-
ness of China’s culture to enhance (the nation’s) soft power” (Yang, 2010).
As of early 2012, some 300 Institutes had been established in countries around the
world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, as illustrated in Table 2. In some nations, such
as Kenya, the Institutes are welcomed, as they are accompanied by financial support
for often cash-deprived educational institutions. Moreover, host institutions see the
project as a significant resource to develop Chinese language and cultural competence,
which is of no small value in many parts of the developing world. Especially given
China’s prominence in developmental projects in Africa, the Institutes might seem to
be a valuable asset in increasing Chinese investment and assistance.
However, largely because of the affiliation with the Chinese government (through
the Ministry of Education) and the fact that individual Institutes receive program
funding from Hanban, suspicion emerged, especially in the West, over their role as
a vehicle for China’s political rise, and as an attempt to present a sanitized version
of Chinese society and culture, while excluding any criticism of China or its policies
(d’Hooghe, 2010; Kurlantzick, 2007). The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee
issued a warning about China’s soft power initiatives, including the Institutes (China’s
Foreign Policy and “Soft Power” in South America, Asia, and Africa, 2008), and in the
summer of 2012, the U.S. Department of State warned U.S.-based Institutes of surrep-
titiously using J1 visiting scholar visas to bring visiting teachers into K-12 classrooms,
a move that was interpreted by many as meant to curtail their influence. Suspicion of
the CIs has certainly not been limited to the United States, as voices from around the
world have also raised suspicions, including Canada, Sweden, and Vietnam (Little,
2011; McDowell, 2010). One recent critique of the project started off by arguing flatly
that “the mission of the CIs is to brainwash American students into thinking that Mao
Zedong is some kind of glorious revolutionary hero” (Mosher, 2012).
CI defenders argue that the suspicion is unmerited, as China harbors no neo-
colonial impulses and, as illustrated in Table 2, China’s efforts to create cultural cen-
ters come a full century after the efforts of France and Italy. China’s ambitious goal
of establishing 500 such institutes would still put the total number of Institutes at
less than half of France’s Alliance Française, which maintains 1,040 such centers in
136 countries around the world. Several recent studies about the Institutes avoid the

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 195
The Sage as Strategy R. Kluver

neocolonial framework altogether, and argue that the Institute project should best be
understood as a globalizing educational model (Li, Mirmirani, & Ilacqua, 2009; Lien,
Oh, & Selmier, 2011), without acknowledging the implicit cultural power in educa-
tional institutions.
Chinese leaders have recently sponsored any number of official attempts to
strengthen China’s geopolitical influence through media spaces, including enhancing
the global appeal of China’s media and cultural industries, developing globally
recognized brand names for consumer products, and perhaps most significantly,
hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo (Cull, 2010; Gries,
Crowson, & Sandel, 2010; Nye, 2008; Pang, 2008). These attempts, however, are often
beset by a number of both internal and external difficulties. Chief among them is
shaking off the international image of a paranoid and reactionary political apparatus
that overreacts to external insults or challenges, as well as global concern over China’s
role in Tibet and/or Taiwan. Whatever goodwill is generated by a successful Olympic
opening ceremony, for example, is typically quickly squandered by ongoing quarrels
with Taiwan or the Dalai Lama.
China’s rise in both economic power and geopolitical power has been well doc-
umented elsewhere, so it is not necessary to review that here (Guthrie, 2006). It is
important, however, to note China’s rapidly increasing demand for raw materials has
driven the nation to assume a neocolonial posture, in which China makes significant
investments in the developing world in order to gain access to natural resources and
markets. China’s leadership rejects these charges, by arguing that since it has never
militarily subjected another nation, and its relations with Africa are based on “equality,
mutual benefit and reciprocity”; there is no “neocolonial” element to the relationships
("China denies pursuing ‘neo-colonialism’ policy," 2011; Jian, 2007; Zhang, 2010).
One recent study that might indeed support the neocolonialist model finds that
among developing countries, the establishment of an Institute is positively correlated
to the volume of exports and foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, and sug-
gests that Institutes are indeed a “leading edge” for further Chinese investment and
influence (Lien et al., 2011). Although the establishment of an Institute doesn’t seem
to dramatically impact trade with developed countries, this research indicates that the
presence of an Institute in a developing nation can raise trade volume by at least 4%,
and FDI from China by at least 46%, although a more plausible argument is probably
that already growing economic ties prompt the founding of an Institute. The authors
conclude that the establishment of a CI not only enhances Chinese language ability in
a country, thus lowering transaction costs, but more importantly, builds trust between
the nations, especially between economic decision makers.
This brief overview of the CI project, and the critical responses to it, raises the
question of how best to understand the potential geopolitical power of the project.
To that end, I will first review and extend some of the relevant literature, particularly
the concept of “soft power,” and explore further theoretical conceptions of power and
influence that will both address the conceptual limitations of the theory, as well as to
advance a theoretical underpinning for locating the actual impact of the CIs.

196 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

Understanding national cultural power in a globalized world

The concept of “soft power” has become a hallmark of current debates about national
image, media, and geopolitics, and has recently become widely used in much dis-
course about geopolitical influence. As the concept has grown in popularity, it has
also become subject to enduring significant critical scrutiny, perhaps the most signif-
icant argument is that the concept cannot be quantified, or it is “too soft,” and thus
worthless as an analytical concept (Ferguson, 2004; Hoagland, 2004; Lee, 2010).
However, theories of media and globalization significantly problematize the con-
cept as well. At a mass level, attempts to quantify cultural influence across national
boundaries are beset by any number of problems, the least of which is measuring
actual cultural flow (R. Kluver & Fu, 2008). Given a world in which global images,
icons, and celebrities serve as a backdrop and context for almost all aspects of daily
life, it is difficult to quantify the extent to which an individual, or indeed, a society, is
“influenced” by cultural motifs, images, symbols, or ideas that originate abroad. From
a perspective of critical theory, the quantification of cultural exchange is not neces-
sary, if one can show qualitative impact. Rather, a long line of critical theory has argued
that the influence is greatest where it is least perceived, through the development and
sustainment of hegemonic discourses and practices. Gramsci, for example, argued
that social and intellectual authorities are maintained by schools, media, and religious
bodies, thus creating a widely held consent for dominance (Zayani, 2005). Likewise,
Foucault argued that discourse (embedded in language) serves to reify power rela-
tionships in ways that are often difficult to perceive (Foucault, 1972). Nye himself
argues that “narratives become the currency of soft or attractive power” (Nye, 2010),
contributing directly to this constructivist view of international relations.
However, the new narrative of global capitalism, in which China has willingly
engaged, holds that consumption is the primary mode of cultural intake. As con-
sumers willingly participate in the selection and appropriation of all forms of cultural
experience, cultural consumption itself undermines the argument that nations can
unilaterally exercise some sort of soft power. Appadurai (1996), for example, argues
that the key feature of the “consumption revolution” is a shift from the reign of sump-
tuary law to the reign of fashion (p. 72), which detaches consumption from a partic-
ular temporal sequence, and by extension, from control over meaning. Kraidy argues
that the dominant cultural mode is one of hybridity, in which meaning is dynamically
constituted in the processes of globalization, an argument that further undermines
any simplistic understanding of international cultural influence (Kraidy, 2005). As
if to illustrate this point, Yan points to the increasing frustration of Chinese leaders
about the “westernization” of Chinese youth, but Yan argues that Chinese youth, even
as they appropriate Western cultural trends, continue to see the world in primarily
nationalistic terms (Yan, 2002).
Thus, it becomes imperative to understand the role of projects such as the CIs,
but without relying on overly simplistic models of culture on geopolitical influence.
Both critics and apologists overstate their cases, the former that the Institutes have

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 197
The Sage as Strategy R. Kluver

an almost unlimited “propaganda power” by brainwashing impressionable young

students, and the apologists by failing to locate the Institutes within a global structure
in which language (both as a language per se, but also as an entry way to cultural
praxis) does indeed create new, or at least rearticulated forms of cultural discourse,
by allowing consumers of culture to access and appropriate new cultural forms that
would otherwise be “out of reach” because of linguistic boundaries. In what follows,
I will lay out an alternative framework to the “soft power” paradigm, built upon the
work of Manuel Castells, but also critically examine the assumptions of the positive
mediation of global connectivity in Castells’s work.
Along with a number of other scholars, Castells argues that the traditional power
of states in a geopolitical context has been undermined by a variety of forces, includ-
ing globalization, technology, and media. Further, power is derived from networks,
specifically, it is constituted by a “specific configuration of global, national, and local
networks in a multidimensional space of social interaction.” In this framework, “the
state becomes just a node (however important) of a particular network” (2009, p. 19).
Thus, power is determined by the specificity of the interaction between global, local,
and national networks, which determine what should be valued and what should be
Thus, a nation has neither the authority nor the ability to unilaterally either create
or sustain “soft power.” Rather, geopolitical influence is an interactive value, deter-
mined by both the active agency, and the complicity or buy in, of local, national, and
global players. To put it shortly, power is constituted by connectivity. By connectivity,
I do not mean merely technical networks, but rather, cultural networks of discourse,
of trade, and of cultural consumption. The network defines what is valued, and thus
what is power.
Any given national government, no matter how powerful, has but limited power
over a limited number of “nodes,” or the spaces of meaning where information is
constructed, distributed, and received, and the voices arising from those nodes are in
competition and interaction with other nodes, each of which also has a role in deter-
mining value. A state has some influence over these discourses, but increasingly, so
do corporations, nongovernment organizations, and nodes constituted by influential
global players, who may or may not mirror the values of the traditional nation-state.
Castells argues further that in a networked globe, there are two key factors to
global influence; first, the ability to constitute, or build, networks and to program
them, as it were, in terms of goals and processes, and second, the ability to con-
nect multiple networks, and to thereby develop shared goals and combine resources
(2010). Resistance to power rests in the same two factors, and thus there is a con-
stant interplay between newly developing and evolving networks, and their interac-
tion constantly keeps any authoritative conception of “value” contested. It is certainly
true that through cultural products and representations, nations might indeed be
imbued with symbolic influence, even emotional reactions. The well-known inter-
national survey of global perceptions of various nations, the Pew Global Attitudes
Project, for example, demonstrates that the reputation of nations can vary according

198 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

to news cycles, global disasters, or politics. Moreover, publics can prove themselves
quite adaptable to media (symbolic) representations of other nations when it comes
to issues of policy, so that unofficial representations of nations through media such
as movies, television shows, and other cultural artifacts are perhaps more influen-
tial than official government stances in determining the reputation of nations (A. R.
Kluver, 2002).
The “programming” of the network, Castells argues, is constituted by the inter-
nal goals and logic of a network, which allows the network to continually redefine
itself in relation to those goals. This programming is constituted primarily by four cul-
tural elements: ideas, visions, projects, and frames, each of which might be constantly
contested through the interactive process within and with other networks (2009). Cul-
tural elements, then, including religion, politics, worldviews, and language, can play
a defining role in establishing or subverting notions of value, and the interaction of
those networks is critical for the establishment of power. The second powerful func-
tion is that of “switching,” or connecting or disconnecting global networks, so that
the cultural resources either enter into global networks or don’t, and by developing a
level of stasis between networks.
It is at this point that Castells’s assumptions are confounded by the persistence of
authoritarianism, as is evidenced by the continuing influence of authoritarian, indeed,
even dictatorial governments, even within a highly globalized (networked) society.
The rise of sociotechnical networks has been spectacular around the world, but as yet,
the engagement with global intellectual and cultural networks does not seem to have
significantly undermined these governments, as is evidenced by the continuing grasp
of power in nations such as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. This presents a challenge
to Castells, as his argument is that power has become detached from traditional gov-
erning structures, and instead is constituted at the network level, by multiple levels of
Further, we need to ask whether Castells’s framework, emerging as it does from
the democratic traditions and advanced economic structures of the West, even applies
in nondemocratic nations. Are the nodes and networks to which Castells looks for
the reconstitution of power hindered by lingering political and economic structures,
such as the authoritarian or state-driven economic models such as China? In response,
Jung-il Doh (Doh, 2006, 2008) argues that Castells’s “nodes and networks” are con-
trolled more by economic elites and traditional political elites than by the citizens
or civil society institutions than Castells envisioned, and that the market value of
profit has taken root among global society, which undermines all other values. Indeed,
China’s newly found economic clout has merely married the “tyranny” of market
capitalism with the political controls that have characterized Chinese society for mil-
Clearly, Doh’s work serves as a corrective to an overly optimistic view of the emer-
gence of global cultural networks, and highlights a hidden logic of the market at work
within global cultural networks. Moreover, it is clear that the emerging cultural net-
works do not necessarily undermine authoritarian government structures, at least

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 199
The Sage as Strategy R. Kluver

in the short term. But it does not undermine the overall critical utility of Castells’s
understanding of communicative power; rather it highlights the hidden values of con-
sumerism embedded in global networks.
In spite of these limitations of Castells’s work, the theory of global nodes and net-
works still provides a more nuanced understanding of the “soft power” implicit in
the CIs globally, and to gain a better sense of how geopolitical power is enacted in
a globalized, technology-oriented society. In the rest of this essay, I will argue that
the CI project can best be understood as an attempt to develop a “node,” in Castells’s
phrase, attempting to articulate and enact Chinese culture (primarily China’s history,
social and civilizational values, and language), and to develop “networks” that revolve
around this frame.

Language, culture, and geopolitical power

As noted earlier, almost all academic analysis of the CI project has relied uncriti-
cally on Nye’s concept of soft power, and accepted at face value the contention that
the project would indeed enhance China’s soft power. Implicit in this argument is a
short-term propagandistic model, which argues that the local hosts and organizers of
CIs simplistically enact and parrot the Chinese governmental line, on whatever polit-
ical topic should emerge. In fact, many, if not most, Institutes go to pains to demon-
strate that they often and explicitly use their programming to explore all sides of an
issue, not just the Chinese government’s. But even if these protestations are discounted
as merely self-defensive or delusional, most of the activities and programming of the
Institutes have little, if any, overt political attempt. Thus, one of the significant weak-
nesses of this line of scholarship is that rarely is there a credible attempt to link motive
and impact, or in other words, demonstrating how an attempt to extend Chinese lan-
guage capability has any impact on furthering Chinese political aims.
A further gap in the existing literature regarding national power is the dearth
of critical examination of the role of foreign language competency as an avenue for
geopolitical influence. The CIs themselves, along with their counterparts from Europe,
are explicitly dedicated to developing language competency, and these communities
of language learners can indeed develop nodes, in Castells’s terms, of global cultural
discourse, and thus begin to interact within global cultural networks.
To illustrate this, it is useful to look at the role of the English language in global
cultural networks. English has approximately 60 million users in its country of origin
(UK), and another 350 million or so native speakers (from other English speaking
countries), and possibly up to 1 billion nonnative speakers around the world (Lewis,
2009). This gives the language an unprecedented role in globalization, facilitating
access to English-language popular culture, literature, history, and religious and philo-
sophical traditions (Crystal, 2003). This role has led a number of scholars to critique
“linguistic imperialism,” or the idea that the UK and the United States have histori-
cally and continue to leverage English-language dominance to enable greater political
and economic leverage. The charges against linguistic dominance are not new; in

200 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

fact, Phillipson documents charges from both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union
of linguistic imperialism and denunciation of the British Council as a form of global
hegemony (Phillipson, 1992).
In contrast, Mandarin is the world’s largest language, in terms of native speak-
ers, but outside of China there are few communities that speak the language, and
those that do are typically ethnic Chinese, such as the Chinese ethnic communi-
ties in Malaysia, Singapore, or Indonesia. While there are an estimated 845 million
first-language speakers of Mandarin (or Putonghua) inside China (with a popula-
tion of 1.3 billion1 ), and another several million among ethnic Chinese populations
(primarily in Taiwan and Southeast Asia), outside of the mainland of China, there
are probably less than half a million non-Chinese ethnicity speakers (Lewis, 2009).
Thus, the potential Chinese language sources that might enter into global cultural
networks (such as its literature, popular culture, and music) are largely inaccessible
to the non-Chinese speaking world, even to China’s near neighbors in East, South-
east, and South Asia. Indeed, the popularity of Chinese stars (such as Jackie Chan
or actress Gong Li), or the appropriation of cultural forms (dress, music, etc.) from
China, hearten China’s leadership as to the potential for Chinese soft power, but in
practical geopolitical terms, very few people globally are influenced at the level of
identity or values by China’s culture. Although it might be true that in the long term
these cultural artifacts, divorced from their linguistic roots, will indeed impact global
cultural networks, the likelihood of this happening outside of a growth in linguis-
tic capacity to engage Mandarin remains very small. In Castells’s terms, the linguistic
barriers prevent the nodes (of symbolic meaning) from being switched into the global
networks of global culture.
It isn’t necessary to subscribe to a strict linguistic/media imperialistic framework
to recognize that the language in which media are produced (including books, mag-
azines, movies, television shows, and music), has a tremendous impact on its adop-
tion, importation, and reception around the globe, with English-language materials
accounting for a significant percentage of media imports worldwide. Moreover, mate-
rial that is originally produced in English is more likely to be translated into local
languages, further extending the reach of cultural mores, hopes, and values that are
originally embodied in the original material.
Thus, the greater potential of the CI to enhance China’s geopolitical influence
power lies not in its constraint of political discussions, but rather in the potential to
“liberate” Chinese culture from its traditional geographical and linguistic boundaries,
and to create a network of nodes, in which elements of Chinese culture (its philosophy,
history, and literature, for example), enter the global network of cultural influence.
If they succeed, the Institutes will do so, not by limiting discussion of Chinese poli-
tics, but by developing nodes of discourse that will both provide resistance to Western
cultural trends, such as movies, news agendas, and political trends, and to enable Chi-
nese cultural values and forms to begin influencing global networks. This impact on
China’s geopolitical influence would be far more substantial than gaining short-term
agreement with transient and most likely temporary political questions.

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 201
The Sage as Strategy R. Kluver

The CI as a node of Chinese discourse

Most critics of the CIs are focusing on the presumed “stifling” effect or censorship of
current policy issues related to China, and ignoring the larger linguistic and cultural
context, that of China’s attempt to reclaim its central role as a global cultural force,
which has been lost since the 18th century, when China’s centuries-old civilization
crumbled before Western domination, especially through the defeats of the Opium
Wars (Suzuki, 2009). By “Confucian nodes,” I do not mean that these nodes will
reflect in any coherent way the actual teachings or philosophies of ancient Confu-
cius, although there is undoubtedly a number of scholars who seek to do so, but
rather a larger cultural repertoire of literature, history, philosophy, and so on, which
emerge from China’s imperial past, as well as its contemporary society. Indeed,
Chinese leaders, when they seek to draw upon the legitimating power of Chinese
social mores and customs, rarely seek to actually follow Confucius’s teaching, but
rather to use the legacy of the ancient sage as an entry point for contemporary
Chinese ideologies and values to enter the global network of discourse. Thus, the
sage (Confucius) is a strategy for geopolitical influence, rather than a guide to proper
The CI project has clearly evolved into a strategy to engage this “global battle
for ideas.” In 2011 Hanban issued a new directive that reflects this new approach.
Although the directive reminds the Institutes that their main task is Chinese language
instruction, it argues that each should conduct research on Chinese culture and “foster
a new generation of sinologists,” as well as develop unique programming that demon-
strates Chinese culture more broadly, such as in the arts, Chinese medicine, martial
arts, tourism, and culinary art (p. 3).
In the fall of 2012, Hanban took this to a new level, and introduced a “Confucius
China Study” plan to “foster a deep understanding of China and the Chinese culture
among young elites from around the world.” The plan called for a number of new
programs designed to help influential intellectuals better integrate China into aca-
demic discourse, including an “Understanding China” visiting scholar program for
academics from around the world, “young leaders” visits of promising undergrad and
Masters level students, international conferences on Chinese issues, and publication
support for works that would help bring Chinese culture to an international audience
(Hanban, 2012). This explicit attempt to integrate China’s cultural heritage into the
thinking of “global elites” demonstrates Hanban’s larger intention, to open up Chi-
nese culture to a global audience, or in Castells’s term, insert a “Confucian node” into
global discourse.
Interestingly, in 1935 at the founding of the British Council, the Prince of Wales
argued similarly that “we are aiming at something more profound than just a smat-
tering of our tongue. Our object is to assist the largest number possible to appreciate
fully the glories of our literature, our contribution to the arts and sciences, and our
pre-eminent contribution to political practice. This can best be achieved by promot-
ing the study of our language abroad” (White, 1965). The goals of the British Council

202 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

were roughly the same as those of China’s leadership, who see Chinese language abil-
ity as more than being able to order from a Chinese menu, but rather, the gateway to
appropriating China’s cultural legacy, and bringing it into a global cultural conversa-
Although it is clear that Hanban, as did the Prince of Wales, intends to impact
global cultural discourse through the Institutes, there remains a fundamental, seem-
ingly unexamined assumption; that is, that the power of the state can indeed impact
global cultural significance. Even in Nye’s rudimentary explanations of soft power,
and especially so in Castell’s formulation of cultural nodes, it is clear that the state
per se has little ability to impact global patterns of cultural consumption, without
resorting to tactics like the disastrous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. And
in that instance, the goal was to remove global cultural discourse from China’s bor-
ders, not enhance China’s global role. At some level, then, the entire enterprise seems
like folly, as if a state could direct the world to pay attention to its art and litera-
ture. But, as mentioned earlier, China isn’t the first nation to make this fallacious
There is another interesting aspect of the development of “Confucian nodes” in
global culture that further illustrates this. Whether by design or by default, most CIs
are established with a fairly autonomous governing structure, with responsibility for
all local programming resting in the hands of the local institutional host, rather than
in any explicit directives. In addition, Hanban supports the travel and salaries for a
number of visiting teachers, who typically visit the host institution for up to 3 years,
where they assist in teaching or administration of the individual Institute. This pro-
cess of partnering local hosts with Chinese institutions, as well as the paid support of
Chinese language teachers around the globe, ultimately creates a dynamic network of
leadership and support related to the programming and goals of the Institute. These
networks, although built around specific project goals, are clearly intended to out-
last the specific length of any particular project. Although they probably don’t rise
to the level of “distributed leadership” that some authors claim (Li et al., 2009), they
certainly do rise to the level of global networks that can ultimately begin to influence
global cultural discourse.
As Lee has noted, there indeed seems to be a logic of the distribution of CIs
globally, with the bulk of the Institutes being located in key Western countries (the
United States and Western Europe, in particular), and China’s key regional neighbors
(Lee, 2010). Lee, however, mistakenly attributes the large distribution in Asia to
cultural familiarity, by identifying the Asian nations as part of Samuel Huntington’s
“Chinese civilization group” (Huntington, 1998). A far better explanation is one that
notes the strategic logic of national advantage. In particular, Institutes are located
in nations in which China has a large economic interest. For example, a number of
the nations, such as Nigeria and Indonesia, that host CIs have strategic economic
resources (petrochemical or other mineral resources) that China needs, or have large
trade with China (such as the United States). These investments in the CIs would
presumably serve to facilitate global trade between China and the host nations, if for

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 203
The Sage as Strategy R. Kluver

Table 3 Confucius Institute Distribution and Favorable Attitudes Toward China

% Favorable attitudes Number of Confucius

Country toward China (2010) Institutes (end of 2010)

Kenya 86 2
Pakistan 86 1
Nigeria 76 2
Indonesia 68 2
Russia 60 18
United States 49 65
South Korea 38 17
India 34 1
Germany 30 12
Japan 26 15

Note. Data drawn from the Pew Global Attitudes Project,, and from the 5th Confu-
cius Institute Conference Reference Materials, 2010. Numbers do not include Confucius Classrooms.

no other reason than creating a class of individuals who could serve as intermediaries
in developing trade ties, if only for the purposes of resource exploitation.
Counterintuitively, the distribution of Institutes corresponds quite well, although
not perfectly, with nations where China is regarded with suspicion, thus we might
infer that the location of the Confucian nodes reflects China’s intent to enter global
networks where the “programming” is least favorable to China. Table 3 demonstrates
that economically and politically important countries with large publics suspicious
of China seem to merit a large number of CIs, while nations with largely positive
public opinion toward China have fewer. Japan and South Korea, in particular, with
a long history of mistrust of China, have a large number of CIs, while the United
States has by far a larger share than any other nation, demonstrating the strategic
goal of changing American attitudes toward China. Ironically, the large nations with
the most favorable public views of China (Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia),
have between them only 11 Institutes, as of the spring of 2014. Although there are
exceptions (such as Vietnam, with only one CI planned), it almost seems that nations
that have large numbers of citizens that distrust China are rewarded more heavily
with the largest investment in terms of CIs.
I have noted earlier that Hanban has begun to more openly advocate the role of the
Confucius Institutes in cultural exchange, although, of course, without using the term
“soft power.” For example, in a 2009 keynote address to local Institute leaders from
around the world, State Council member Liu Yandong told the delegates that “[in]
the final analysis, anything, as long as it is conducive to the exchange and interaction
of education and culture between China and the world, to the further understanding
of the Chinese language and culture by people of the world, to the deeper friendship
between the Chinese people and peoples of the world, is worth bold exploration and
attempts” (Liu, 2010). Thus, the development of cultural nodes, whether linguistic or
not, serve to enhance Hanban’s interests.

204 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

But how effective are the CIs as a node for Chinese discourse to enter the global
cultural networks? For the most part, the impact of a CI is local, not national. The
Institutes generate local programs, such as Chinese New Year festivals, film festivals,
and local Chinese language classes; their impact is typically short term. In the wildly
optimistic annual report of its impact generated by Hanban, it reported that in 2011,
500,000 students enrolled in Chinese language programs worldwide, with an average
enrollment of approximately 28 students per class, one-tenth of the number of
Chinese who study English, and overall programming reached an audience of nearly
7.2 million people. So far, there is no data as to how many of these students continue
with Chinese, beyond one class, which might range from a daylong workshop to
a semester-long class. Although these numbers are impressive, these short-term
impacts do not rise to the level of one hit movie generated in the United States and
shown globally.
The longevity of the CI project is still an issue under significant consideration, as
there is little doubt that the hundreds of Institutes exist largely through the continued
funding provided by Hanban. Should this level of funding decline or even be cut off
completely, the programming would also diminish significantly. Hanban’s goals are to
continue to establish a total of 500 Institutes worldwide, with 1,000 Confucius Class-
rooms, staffed by up to 50,000 visiting teachers. In one recent year, 2009, Hanban spent
approximately $19 million on centralized activities, not including the annual program
funding to Institutes around the world (Headquarters, 2010). Individual institutes
submit their own funding requests, and the funding to each is not made public, but a
rough estimate of the annual budget for the current number of Institutes is approxi-
mately US $145,000,000 (Siow, 2011). Because Hanban typically requires a 50% cost
share requirement, this means that Hanban commits about $60 million per year on the
overseas Institutes, or about $200,000 each, with some portion of the funding going
to Confucius Classrooms. Indeed, not every Institute is funded equally, and there is
a large discrepancy between not just those in the developing versus developed world,
but even within a nation, based upon the mission and impact of the individual Insti-
tute. But, as Siow (2011) notes, even this budget pales in comparison to the $1 billion
budget of the British Council, or even the cost of a typical Hollywood blockbuster.

This essay has argued that Castells’s understanding of “communication power,” and
the attendant constructs of global nodes and networks of influence, offers a powerful
framework by which to assess the larger geopolitical impact, not just of media arti-
facts, but also in understanding the role of language communities in defining those
global networks. By creating a mechanism whereby Chinese language and tradition
are made more accessible to a global audience, and thus creating nodes of global
cultural impact, China does far more to enhance its geopolitical standing than any
short-term political agenda could achieve. There are a number of theoretical insights
gleaned from this study, which I would like to highlight below.

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 205
The Sage as Strategy R. Kluver

China’s quickly growing economic and political weight has quickly eclipsed the
nation’s impact on global culture, and it is this gap that the CI seeks to bridge. By
enabling the growth of a Chinese node of discourse within global networks, China’s
leadership seeks to authenticate its cultural, historical, and, ultimately, its ideological
China’s investment in the CIs allows the growth of communities that gain access
to China’s historical and cultural repertoire, and as the investment patterns indicate,
enter the global networks from positions embedded within the extant global net-
works of cultural discourse: namely, universities and schools, sites of symbolic cap-
ital that are firmly rooted within the global cultural networks. A limited amount of
state resources invested in linguistic competence and cultural discourse might ulti-
mately prove to be far more successful than a comparably priced piece of military
The popularity and wide growth of the CIs should be considered a concomitant to
the rise of China’s geopolitical and economic rise, in other words, an entirely natural
response both of China in wanting more people to understand it and on the part of
the host nations who are seeking to develop competent leadership to deal with China.
The discrepancy between China’s growing political and economic clout on the one
hand, and its relative cultural weakness on the other, is obvious, even if it is not widely
recognized in the West, and the project is clearly an attempt to overcome this deficit
on the part of China’s leadership.
The purpose of the CI project, then, goes far beyond a purely short-term projec-
tion of China’s current political values, but rather, to facilitate China’s entrance into a
global discourse network in which cultural values, assumptions, and ideologies are all
at play, to make a distinctly Chinese contribution to emerging global culture, and to
reposition Chinese culture away from a stance of defensiveness and weakness, which
has characterized it for the last 200 years. The goal is to reposition Chinese culture
as part of a new, global culture, with relevance not just to the Chinese state, but to
the rest of the globe as well. Critics who focus on the limited short-term political
issues that currently define China’s relationship to the global community miss the
point entirely.


1 Although most citizens of China are from the Han ethnic group (probably 92%), a large
number of citizens, especially rural and uneducated populations, would speak (as a first
language) either a regional or ethnic dialect, which are linguistically distinct from

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.

206 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
China denies pursuing “neo-colonialism” policy. (2011). Zeenews. Retrieved from
China’s foreign policy and “soft power” in South America, Asia, and Africa. (2008, April 15).
Congressional Research Service. Washington, DC: Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Crystal, D. (2003). English as a global language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University
Cull, N. (2010, November 5). Looking for God at the Shanghai Expo: Religion, nation
branding and the soft power showdown in China. Huffington Post. Retrieved from
Doh, J.-I. (2006, November 14–15). Faces of challenge to cultural diversity. Seoul, Korea:
International Forum on Cultural Rights and Diversity.
Doh, J.-I. (2008). Market authoritarianism and barbarism of civilization. Seoul, Korea:
Thinking Tree.
Ferguson, N. (2004). Colossus: The price of America’s empire. New York, NY: Penguin.
Foucault, M. (1972). Power/knowledge. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Gries, P. H., Crowson, H. M., & Sandel, T. (2010). The Olympic effect on American attitudes
towards China: Beyond personality, ideology, and media exposure. Journal of
Contemporary China, 19(64), 213–231. doi: 10.1080/10670560903444181.
Guthrie, D. (2006). China and globalization: The social, economic, and political transformation
of Chinese society. London, England: Routledge.
Hanban. (2012). Confucius China study plan. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from
Hanban-Confucius Institute Headquarters. (2010). The 5th Confucius Institute Conference
Reference Materials. Beijing, China: Author.
Hoagland, J. (2004). Elasticity. The New Republic, 230, 30–34.
d’Hooghe, I. (2010). The limits of China’s soft power in Europe: Beijing’s Public Diplomacy
puzzle. The Hague, the Netherlands: Netherlands Institute of International Relations
Hu, J. (2007). Hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese Characteristics and strive
for new victories in building a moderately prosperous society in all: Report to the 17th Party
Congress. Beijing, China: Communist Party of China.
Huntington, S. (1998). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York,
NY: Simon and Schuster.
Jian, J. (2007, January 5). China in Africa: From capitalism to colonialism, Asia Times.
Retrieved from
Kluver, A. R. (2002). The logic of new media in international affairs. New Media and Society,
4(4), 499–517. doi: 10.1177/146144402321466787.
Kluver, R., & Fu, W. (2008). Measuring cultural globalization in Southeast Asia. In T. Chong
(Ed.), Globalisation and its counter-forces in Southeast Asia. Singapore, Singapore:
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Kraidy, M. (2005). Hybridity, or the cultural logic of globalization. Philadelphia, PA: Temple
University Press.
Kurlantzick, J. (2007). Charm offensive: How China’s soft power is transforming the world. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 207
The Sage as Strategy R. Kluver

Lee, K. (2010). Towards a new framework for soft power: An observation of China’s
Confucius Institute. Inter Faculty, 2,
Lewis, M. P. (Ed.) (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (16th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL
Li, H. C., Mirmirani, S., & Ilacqua, J. (2009). Confucius Institutes: Distributed leadership and
knowledge sharing in a worldwide network. The Learning Organization, 16(6), 469–482.
Lien, D., Oh, C. H., & Selmier, W. T. (2011). Confucius Institute effects on China’s trade and
FDI: Isn’t it delightful when folks from afar study Hanyu? International Review of
Economics and Finance. doi: 10.1016/j.iref.2011.05.010.
Little, M. (2011, May 19). Confucius Institute unwelcome at university, says professor, Epoch
Times. Retrieved from
Liu, Y. (2010, December 10). Working together towards the sustainable development of
Confucius Institutes. Paper presented at the 5th Confucius Institute Conference, Beijing,
MacMillan, M. (2007). Nixon and Mao: The week that changed the world. New York, NY:
Random House.
McDowell, A. (2010, July 9). Are China’s Confucius Institutes in Canada culture clubs, or spy
outposts? National Post, p. A1. Retrieved from
Mosher, S. W. (2012). Confucius Institutes: China carries out a “long march” through our
universities. Human Events. Retrieved from
Nye, J. (2004). Soft power: The means to success in world politics. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
Nye, J. (2008, August 24). The Olympics and Chinese soft power. Huffington Post. Retrieved
Nye, J. (2009). Get smart: Combining hard and soft power. Foreign Affairs, 88(4): 160–63.
Nye, J. (2010, October 4). The pros and cons of citizen diplomacy. The New York Times.
Retrieved from
Pang, Z. (2008). The Beijing Olympics and China’s soft power. Brookings. Retrieved from
Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguisitc imperialism. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Siow, M. W.-S. (2011). China’s Confucius Institutes: Crossing the river by feeling the stones.
Asia Pacific Bulletin, (91). Retrieved from
Suzuki, S. (2009). Chinese soft power, insecurity studies, myopia and fantasy. Third World
Quarterly, 30(4), 779–793.
Volkmer, I. (1999). News in the global sphere: A study of CNN and its impact on global
communication. Luton, England: University of Luton Press.
White, A. J. S. (1965). The British council: The first 25 years, 1934–1959. London, England:
British Council.
Yan, Y. (2002). Managed globalization: State power and cultural transition in China. In P.
Berger (Ed.), Many globalizations: Cultural diversity in the contemporary world (pp.
19–47). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

208 Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association
R. Kluver The Sage as Strategy

Yang, J. (2010, August 25). [Good behavior is soft power]. Peoples Daily.
Retrieved from
Zayani, M. (Ed.) (2005). The Al Jazeera Phenomenon. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Zhang, H. (2010, November 16). China not neocolonialist. China Daily. Retrieved from

Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014) 192–209 © 2014 International Communication Association 209