Updated: Oct 19
Image courtesy: The Jamestown Foundation
Article 33/ 2023
The recent endorsement of teaching Mandarin Chinese in Iranian, Saudi Arabian, and Turkish schools reflects a growing trend in West Asia. This move comes in the wake of Iran's sensitivity towards Western languages, particularly English, which is viewed as a potential conduit for cultural intrusion. China's role in this transformation, driven by President Xi Jinping's Sinification agenda, underscores its ambition to expand cultural and geopolitical influence beyond its borders.
While Sinification has historical roots, its modern iteration as an expansionist policy is a product of President Xi Jinping's leadership. This initiative seeks to assimilate non-Chinese societies into the norms, culture, and language of the Han Chinese, making it a key instrument of soft power and political influence both domestically and abroad.
Within China's borders, the Xi regime has intensified efforts to suppress the language and culture of ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghurs, Mongols, and Tibetans. This aggressive approach is emblematic of a broader strategy to consolidate power, which includes the subjugation of Hong Kong, the annexation of Taiwan, and asserting control over the South China Sea.
Expanding Influence: China's West Asia Agenda
The Middle East has become a significant theatre for China's language imperialism. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have all taken significant strides to incorporate Mandarin into their educational systems. This shift is particularly notable in Iran, where Mandarin's introduction stands in stark contrast to the continued ban on non-Persian ethnic languages, such as Azerbaijani.
Saudi Arabia's strategic and economic partnership with China, developed in response to changing geopolitical dynamics. This has led to a notable elevation of Chinese language to the status of the kingdom's third educational language, alongside Arabic and English. Notable institutions, including King Saud University, have forged agreements in December 2019 with the Confucius Institute, solidifying Mandarin's importance in the Saudi educational system.
Turkey's burgeoning relationship with China has ignited a newfound interest in the Chinese language and culture. This trend is mirrored in other parts of West Asia, as Chinese gains popularity as a second language. The Egyptian Ministry of Education's pilot project on 29th September, 2022 introduced Mandarin Chinese as an elective foreign language in middle schools signifies a deepening cultural and educational partnership between Egypt and China. This initiative, launched in cooperation with the Confucius Institute of Cairo, is emblematic of the robust relations between the two nations, and reflects the Egyptian government's commitment to enhancing cultural exchange between the two nations.
China's strategic use of language as a tool of soft power and geopolitical influence is redefining educational landscapes across the Middle East. Mandarin's ascent is not simply a matter of cultural exchange, but a calculated move to advance China's geopolitical interests. Recognizing the implications of China's language imperialism is imperative in safeguarding the autonomy and diversity of global cultures and societies. As Mandarin continues to gain prominence in West Asia, its influence is likely to extend beyond educational settings and into various facets of society, potentially reshaping diplomatic, economic, and cultural dynamics in the region.
Proficiency in Mandarin could become a diplomatic asset for countries in West Asia. As China's presence in the region grows, being able to communicate in Mandarin may facilitate smoother negotiations and interactions with Chinese officials. This could potentially lead to more nuanced and strategic bilateral relations. With China being a major player in global trade and investment, proficiency in Mandarin could open doors for individuals and businesses in West Asia. This could lead to increased economic cooperation, trade agreements, and investments between West Asian countries and China.
The learning of Mandarin could lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture, fostering cultural exchange programs and initiatives. This could result in a more enriched cultural landscape in West Asia, potentially leading to collaborations in arts, literature, and other creative endeavours. As the number of Chinese tourists visiting West Asia continues to rise, the ability to speak Mandarin could significantly enhance the tourism and hospitality industry in the region. This could lead to tailored services, improved customer experiences, and potentially increased revenue from Chinese tourists.
Proficiency in Mandarin could facilitate collaborations between educational institutions in West Asia and China. This could lead to joint research projects, student exchanges, and academic partnerships, further enhancing the educational landscape in the region. With the global popularity of Chinese films, TV shows, and music, knowledge of Mandarin could lead to a greater appreciation for Chinese entertainment in West Asia. This could result in more opportunities for cross-cultural collaborations in the media and entertainment industries. As West Asian countries diversify their diplomatic and economic ties, proficiency in Mandarin could serve as a counterbalance to traditional alliances with Western nations. This could potentially provide more strategic flexibility in the region's geopolitical landscape.
Confucius Institutes in West Asia:
Source: “Confucius Institutes Around the World 2023,” Dig Mandarin, January 7, 2023
In July 2020, Hanban, the Chinese government agency responsible for the establishment of Confucius Institutes (CIs), underwent a rebranding transformation. It changed its name to the Ministry of Education Center for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) in a strategic move to counter negative perceptions. As part of this restructuring, Hanban created a distinct entity called the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF). This foundation now takes charge of funding and overseeing Confucius Institutes. CIEF operates under the supervision of the Chinese Ministry of Education and receives support from the Chinese government.
Reports from Arabic newspapers indicate that Confucius Institutes (CIs) have been strategically received across the Arab world, serving China's self-interests. The inaugural CI in an Arab nation, situated in Beirut, serves as a pivotal tool for China's influence in the region. At the institute's ten-year milestone, Adnan Kassar, Chairman of Fransabank in Lebanon, emphasised the importance of learning Chinese for global utility, aligning with China's aim to expand its cultural and linguistic reach.
In non-democratic nations like Egypt, where CIs are located in Cairo and Ismailia, the institutes serve as instruments of dependency. The memorandum of understanding signed between the Confucius Institute at Suez Canal University and the British University in Egypt in March 2017 underscores China's calculated move to facilitate Chinese language education, thereby securing a strategic foothold in the educational landscape. The Egyptian Minister of Education and Science endorsement of this collaboration further highlights the reliance on Chinese influence.
Morocco, hosting three CIs between 2008 and 2016, adopts a model that aligns with China's objectives. By expanding into other universities to meet the surging demand for Chinese language instruction, Morocco effectively deepens its dependence on Chinese resources. Similarly, in Sudan, where a CI is situated in Khartoum, the institute caters not only to the local Sudanese population but also to students from numerous nationalities, predominantly from African nations. This strategic move allows China to exert influence over a diverse range of countries, cementing its foothold in the region.
In the United Arab Emirates, where two CIs have been established, a similar pattern emerges. The President of the University of Dubai emphasises cultural exchange alongside economic ties, illustrating how the institutes serve as conduits for China's soft power strategy. Notably, the tailored Chinese language classes offered for local police officers serve China's interests in effectively communicating with its sizable diaspora, further solidifying its presence in the UAE. These calculated initiatives underscore China's aim to strategically embed itself in the socio-cultural fabric of non-democratic Arab nations.
Under President Xi Jinping's leadership, Chinese diplomacy often asserts that China's global engagements are primarily centred around financial and commercial interests, disavowing any political ambitions, including replacing the USA as a global influencer. This narrative emphasises "win-win" cooperation and peaceful coexistence, positioning China as a benevolent partner. This approach allows China to gain influence over Arab society at a relatively low cost, while Arab nations gain access to the world's second-largest economy. Consequently, Confucius Institutes (CIs) in the Arab world steer clear of sensitive topics, like Hong Kong democracy protests, Uyghur detention camps, and Taiwan's political status, which may challenge the Chinese government's narrative.
The mentioned Arab countries share non-democratic political structures, aligning more closely with China's system than Western democracies. China's non-democratic governance model coupled with economic prosperity serves as an attractive alternative to the Western insistence on democratic systems for financial success. Both China and Arab nations share a postcolonial narrative, with many Arab countries recognizing China as a powerful alternative to the West since the 1955 Bandung Conference, despite China's past relative weakness. This mutual historical perspective contributes to Arab countries' openness to Chinese influence and the presence of CIs.
Furthermore, except for the wealthier Gulf States, many Arab nations seek investment and recognition to enhance their local higher education systems. This explains the enthusiastic reception of Confucius Institutes, which align with China's interests in promoting its own model. While CIs play a significant role in shaping China's image in the Arab world, they are just one tool in the Chinese Communist Party's broader strategy. China also wields media outlets, like China Radio International, and collaborates with local media, along with cultural elements such as centres, festivals, and workshops to bolster its influence in the region.
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