Education, including the use of exchange programmes to increase student mobility and efforts to promote culture abroad, has always played a key role in International Relations as a tool of soft power. Collaboration in higher education and research promotes communication and facilitates the exchange of peoples and perspectives between countries, thereby promoting appreciation of the
‘other’ culture and education systems. The contemporary world, particularly major powers like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and China, devote considerable resources to their education programs and institutions to ‘win hearts and minds’.
Although education is recognised as an effective soft power tool for cultivating goodwill, the Chinese approach to educational exchange differs considerably. China’s vision of soft power, or ruan shi li, was conceived during the early 1990’s as cultivating an ‘admirable’ culture and ideological system that other states would tend to follow. This soft power strategy has transformed dramatically during the last decade, with rising emphasis on coercive diplomacy – the use of negative actions to change the behaviour of target states.
Beijing is also deploying an assertive brand of fiery diplomacy through ‘wolf warriors’ to defend its ‘national honour and dignity’ and ‘refute all groundless slander’ targeting China. Furthermore, China has begun using traditional soft power tools that focus on academia, such as scholarships for foreign students and short-term visiting programs targeting the faculty, to achieve direct influence compared to the former ‘admirable’ soft power influence.
China has begun using traditional soft power tools that focus on academia, such as scholarships for foreign students and short-term visiting programs targeting the faculty, to achieve direct influence compared to the former ‘admirable’ soft power influence.
China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) increasingly represent Beijing’s changing soft power approach. For years, CIs were a primary pillar of China’s traditional soft power strategy to cultivate international goodwill. Recently, though, their mandate has not only changed with a strong push towards disseminating propaganda but they have also been accused of running influence campaigns abroad and are being monitored for their role in pressuring host universities to minimise criticism of China to the detriment of academic freedom.
Additionally, China’s aim to replace Western firms – currently at the forefront of key technologies – with Chinese national champions has also led Beijing to adopt a set of policies to forcefully transfer sensitive technology from technologically advanced countries like the US and Canada, which could also have adverse implications for the global economy. The targets are not Western multinationals alone but Western scientific research institutes and research staff as well. The Chinese government not only maintains government programmes that invite overseas Chinese and foreign experts and scholars in strategic sectors to teach and work in China, but also utilises academic partnerships and collaborations for espionage. In addition, China sends experts abroad to gain access to cutting-edge technical knowledge of developed countries, like the US, without disclosing the organisation or individual’s connections to the Chinese government The larger objective clearly is to achieve global leadership in technologically sensitive sectors (including military technology) that enable China to exert global influence and facilitate its hegemonic ambitions.
… as China gradually penetrates academia, including think tanks and overseas research organisations. Beijing’s ability to manipulate and influence foreign students and faculty has also expanded rapidly.
China’s strong economic fundamentals have enabled such partnerships, with the possibility of forced technology transfer becoming more real as China gradually penetrates academia, including think tanks and overseas research organisations. Beijing’s ability to manipulate and influence foreign students and faculty has also expanded rapidly. In fact, China’s targeting of the overseas teaching faculty is deliberate and in line with its larger global intent to influence.
In this age of social networking, ‘networked’ professors – manipulated or influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through various tools like short-term fellowships and research grants – become tools themselves. These professors help in facilitating, communicating, and amplifying China’s perspectives on issues, advertently or inadvertently, through their ‘networked’ student followers, who further spread (tweet/retweet) and share their teachers’ views, enabling China to extend its influence even further.
This kind of Chinese activism in higher education systems has become increasingly conspicuous, particularly in the West, with similar tendencies starting to become visible in the South Asian academia. In fact, in South Asia, Chinese effort has also been exerted to familiarise (or impose) a Chinese perspective given that South Asian academia is much more familiar with the Western narrative on China. Is China pursuing academic colonialism? Is it aiming to tackle the ‘hegemony of discourse’ and its own weakness of the ‘power of the word’ (hua yu quan)? Or is it feeling empowered and at near equivalence with the educational institutions and systems of the West, and seeking to surpass the institutions it has for years admired?
These questions are complex and difficult to answer
This research paper explores China’s efforts to cultivate influence among academia in the South Asian region. While primarily focusing on India, the paper also examines similar efforts in Bangladesh and Nepal. For a nuanced understanding of China’s influence actions, this research employs a comparative approach by first identifying applications in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, and subsequently diagnosing the same in India and South Asia (particularly Bangladesh and Nepal). The research underscores the contrast in the character of China’s application of influence strategies across countries, which, at least for India, is also an outcome of the strained relations between the two countries. Policy suggestions gathered from the Indian experience are proposed for consumption of a wider scholarly and strategic global audience.
Dr Parama Sinha Palit is Adjunct Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore