Dubai: Having underestimated the importance of the cultural and language factor in increasing its influence for years, China is now acting differently.
It is working on increasing its clout in the Middle East through cultural activities, according to political analysts.
China is paying more attention to “soft power”, and is building dozens of “Confucius centres” around the globe, including the Arab world, to teach Mandarin — its official language, which is spoken by over a billion people worldwide.
“Chinese soft power in the Arab world is taking more than one form,” said Mohammad Fayez, head of the Chinese studies department at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Strategic Studies Centre.
The term “soft power” was coined by Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, and refers to the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without using force or coercion.
China, under President Xi Jinping, who in 2014 called for boosting his country’s soft power, is now sending “better communicating messages to the world”.
Teaching of language
“First, they are paying more attention to teaching the Chinese language in the Arab world. They are trying to nurture a generation of Arabs who relate better to the Chinese state. This generation will understand the country and appreciate the spirit of its language, and help build bridges between China and the Arab world,” Fayez said in an interview with Gulf News.
“China has greatly succeeded in this regard.”
By the end of 2016, China had established 512 Confucius centres and 1,073 classes in 140 locations around the world, according to a paper prepared by Gao Xiaoping, who teaches Arabic at Yangzhou University in her home country.
Eleven of these educational centres are located in eight Arab countries: Lebanon (1), Jordan (2), UAE (2), Bahrain (1), Egypt (2), Sudan (1), and Morocco (2), Xiaoping said in the paper published recently by Ofoq, the periodical electronic newsletter of the Arab Thought Foundation (ATF) Research and Studies Centre, headquartered in Beirut.
Apart from the Confucius centres, Beijing is working on setting up and expanding Chinese language departments at various universities in the Arab world.
For example, in Egypt, there are nearly 10 Chinese language departments in different higher educational institutions, “and this is a big number compared to previous years,” said Fayez. However, there are far more centres of Western studies in Arab universities.
Beijing is also opening up to non-governmental organisations after many years of limiting its dealings with the Arabs through official channels, he said. Many conferences related to Arab countries have been held in cities across China for a few years now, and dozens of Arab researchers and academics are invited to attend.
Moreover, “the number of Arab researchers who have visited China has grown a lot compared to previous years”, explained Fayez, who was invited to attend seven conferences in China so far.
China’s economic factors are also paramount, according to analysts. And it is in this light that Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative must be seen.
The grand Chinese plan aims to connect more than 60 countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa through physical and digital infrastructure. The initiative recommends several tools, and all of them can be branded “soft power” tools.
These include establishing strong relations among universities and higher education institutions, organising cultural festivals and films weeks, as well as exchanging TV programmes and movies.
Fayez added: “China is committed to the principle of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, and this offers it a great opportunity when dealing with Arab countries, as there are no sensitivities related to internal issues.”
Unlike Western countries, whose aid comes with strings attached, such as democratic reforms and human rights, Beijing’s financial aid and investment are free from any preconditions, analysts said.
However, Beijing seeks one thing: The states must recognise Taiwan as part of China, and not establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan, according to Xiaoping.
Even before it started paying more attention to soft power, China funded various projects in Arab countries as part of its aid programme.
For instance, it sent nearly 2,000-member medical workers to Yemen in the past 40 years to implement health projects in the impoverished country.
It also offered Dh28 million in aid to the Palestinians in 2016, and nearly Dh127 million in aid to assist the Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Libyan and Yemeni people, according to Chinese researchers.
Meanwhile, as the western powers look with suspicion at what they consider a “Chinese threat”, Beijing talks of a “peaceful rise” that will reflect positively on global security and growth, analysts said.
To many Arabs, the fact that China was never an occupying power in its modern history is a positive factor, Fayez said.
Arabs look at the Asian giant as a country “that has no colonial ambitions”.