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 embrasure.

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 but flawed.

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 continent.

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 caliber.

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 institutions.

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.