The effectiveness of Confucius Institutes as a tool of China’s soft power in South Africa

  • Maddalena Procopio London School of Economics London, United Kingdom


The link between teaching Chinese as a foreign language and the role of China on the international stage has grown in importance since 2004 when the Confucius Institutes programme was launched. Despite the confusion that surrounds the categorisation of the relationship, Chinese circles increasingly consider the language institutes as a tool of soft power in “support of the rise of China”. The paper analyses the meaning of “cultural” soft power and attempts to measure its effectiveness in support of China’s foreign policy aims through the study of Confucius Institutes in South Africa. Based on fieldwork data, the paper unpacks the reality on the ground through a study of the process of attraction at the executive level as well as at the students’ level. It concludes that Confucius Institutes, despite attempts by a number of Chinese actors to promote their presence and activities in South Africa, can only be partially effective tools of soft power. Focusing on the modalities, as opposed to the breadth, of the engagement provides a more accurate prediction of long-term outcomes. While the initiative’s aim of exposing people to China, albeit briefly, is efficiently fulfilled, the project’s ultimate aim to support China’s rise is more dependent on the content of the interaction experience than is currently accounted for.