Image: CRIENGLISH.com (2013). Second Confucius Institute in Tanzania Opens. Retrieved April 20, 2017 from here.
‘In the colonial society, education is such that it serves the colonialist…In a regime of slavery, education was but one institution for forming slaves.’ (Mozambique Liberation Front, 1968).
For many scholars, increasing Chinese engagement in Africa has signalled a new stage of neo-colonialism. As the Tanzanian political commentator Kitila Mkumbo pointed out, “Africa is now becoming a new battlefield for the scramble for China and the United States access to Africa’s richness in natural resources and markets [sic]”. News organisation Al Jazeera and all Africa have also noted that China’s engagement with Africa symbolises a “struggle for influence among emerging and economically advanced powers jostling for a strategic opportunity to exploit resources”.
Amid the growing anxiety around China’s increasing economic and military power, the Chinese government has attempted to project a more favourable image of itself through Confucius Institutes. Naming the institutes after the sage-philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) was meant to symbolise the essence of Chinese culture through the teaching of Confucian values, including benevolence (ren, 仁), righteousness (yi, 义), and civility (li, 礼). At the core of Confucian teachings is the importance of practising proper human relations, which Chinese political figures have used when describing host countries as “brotherly bilateral friendly”.
Since its inception in 2004, the mission of promoting Chinese language and culture has spread rapidly around the world. In 2014, 440 institutes and 646 classrooms were teaching Chinese language and culture in 120 countries, where at least 30 of those countries were in Africa (Wekesa, 2013; Zaharna et al., 2014). However, despite the extent of China’s influence, the Confucius Institutes have received criticism in host countries and abroad. For example, some have stated that the institutes reflect the Chinese government’s political agenda and interfere with academic freedom, and that they are simply used by “African countries to leverage clout in international organisations” (Stambach & Kwayu, 2017, p. 419).
Whatever the case, operating as an ‘ideological battleground’, these institutes have also called into question Africa’s position in international relations and whether African countries would look East or West in their engagements with foreign countries (Olin-Ammentorp & Sun, 2014; Abdulai, 2016).
However, the problem with this view is that it fails to take into account what actually happens when these institutes are implemented into practice. As researchers Amy Stambach and Aikande Kwayu state in their latest article on Confucius Institutes in Tanzania, despite the many different narratives about China’s influence in Africa that appear as master plans on brochures and ceremonies, there are a variety of ways in which people interact with Chinese language learning and China-Tanzania relations.
Through ethnographic fieldwork in Tanzania’s classrooms and Chinese-owned shops, the scholars found that what is taught in the institutes is not exactly what is learnt. Instead of having much to do with official views or ideologies, “the biggest effects of [Confucius Institutes] seems to be bringing Chinese teachers and Tanzanian students into conversation, not necessarily delivering any master plan” (p. 418).
Moreover, by sitting in on these sessions, the researchers found that while most of the courses aim to teach Chinese language by students repeating and memorising sounds and tones, few pass the standardised language exam or travel to China; and even fewer seem interested in the videos that show aspects of nature depicted in ancient and modern Chinese characters (p. 419). More than proficiency or scholarship, most students use class time to multi-task, where many carry on with their day jobs by running errands throughout the day, while others sit in to broaden their skills and build up their resumes.
Like many students, Confucius Institute teachers are also building their work portfolios while juggling social life, making most interactions between student-teacher as an exchange within a generation, with many friendships being formed. This shows the reality of people-to-people interactions that Confucius Institute brochures do not anticipate.
In the market place, Stambach and Kwayu also note that a similar story unfolds. Away from the university, on the crowded streets of Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam, interest in the Chinese language is mixed. While business people at the high end of the economic scale seem to have practical reasons for learning Chinese, they are exceptions among the internationally connected as most international business is still conducted in English.
At the other end of the spectrum, rather than studying Chinese, Tanzanian day labourers employed by Chinese pick up expressions in Mandarin. From the authors’ field notes, one woman conveys that her Chinese employer treats her like a slave and that her employer comes and goes without any notification. She does not see the need to learn Chinese. In another shop, the Tanzanian workers state that they learned a few words by listening to their employer.
These ad hoc snapshot interviews reveal that rather than understanding this exchange as one where many Chinese teach their staff informally, some Tanzanians pick up a few words if they think they are useful from their employers (p. 422).
In that case, rather than representing a political project that symbolises Tanzania’s shift to China, beyond East and West, Chinese language and cultural exchange does not draw African students into close engagement with China, but neither does it detract from China. To say that Tanzania or other African countries are moving towards or away from anything plays into highly abstract expressions of diplomacy that overlook the fact that people “use education to define and remake power through everyday activities” (p. 423).
Without considering African agency or the agency of people who use these institutes and exchanges for a variety of purposes, scholars, researchers and journalists play into the myth that the world is divided by an East-West dichotomy with fixed constructions of power and identity.