Chinese Cultural Diplomacy in the 21st Century – an interview with Danielly Becard and Paulo Menechelli, by Victor Thives

The cultural aspect of International Relations, traditionally downplayed by the mainstream of the discipline, has gained strength in recent decades. Experts from different vantage points agree that analysis which overlook the cultural context of societies have a limited explanatory power. In this background, new concepts were forged, such as soft power and cultural diplomacy. States, for their part, have assimilated some of these ideas, with which they now articulate their foreign policies. China, for instance, has effectively incorporated expressions such as soft power and cultural soft power into its political jargon for almost two decades now.

In fact, culture has become a key part of China’s hegemonic project. The internationalization of the Chinese media, the strengthening of Chinese movies and the spreading of Confucius Institutes are the most evident facet of a much deeper phenomenon. In their article “Chinese Cultural Diplomacy: instruments in China’s strategy for international insertion in the 21st Century,” published in RBPI (Vol. 62, n. 1 – 2019), Danielly Becard and Paulo Menechelli aim at comprehending the relationship between cultural diplomacy and China’s strategy for international insertion in this new century. The authors were interviewed by Victor Thives, member of the promotion staff of RBPI, regarding their views on topics related to their research.

As you state in the article, despite China’s growing usage of cultural diplomacy, which became a key-element of its international insertion strategy, there is a persistent resistance to the Chinese way of life shared by the global public opinion, especially in relation to human rights and political issues. Is there a way China can win over the Western public opinion before it democratizes?

That is an excellent question, and indeed it is still open for debate. As we stated in the article, perceptions of Chinese cultural diplomacy are still unclear and erratic. This happens partially because of political and human rights issues, as you pointed out, as did others, such as Joseph Nye, who said that, in order to overcome China’s soft power deficit, the government should get out of the way of Chinese citizens. Nevertheless, there is also another aspect, which we highlighted in the article: Chinese cultural diplomacy has important particularities, such as a broader definition of culture, a more prominent presence of the State in conducting the cultural diplomacy, a less clear distinction between the terms of public diplomacy and propaganda, and a two-way use of public diplomacy, for domestic and international purposes. These particularities make the analyses regarding the Chinese cultural diplomacy more complex because, even when China employs the same actions traditionally used by other States, the reception can be different. Regardless, it seems that the Chinese government will continue to strive to promote the country’s cultural diplomacy in order to increase knowledge of the Chinese way of life.

In your work, you mention cases of American authorities – such as congressmen and the FBI director – who alert against the risks of the Chinese presence through Confucius Institutes in American universities. Could this be an attempt to securitize this issue? Is this another front of the Sino-Soviet conflict?

Even traditional critics of Chinese soft power actions, such as David Shambaugh, and of the Confucius Institutes, such as Marshall Sahlins, pointed out the perils of moving the analyses of these questions to a security arena. Shambaugh stated that everyone – especially the media covering the CIs in the United States –, “have to be very, very, very empirical and very careful in how we assess this issue, not least of which is because of Chinese-Americans. There’s a kind of McCarthyite undertone I sense that is there.” On the other hand, Sahlins, one of the most outspoken critics of CI, said the critical rhetoric against CIs migrated from academic freedom to espionage, having the debate being captured by conservative politicians and State security agencies. So perhaps it is less the case of these questions – Chinese presence in the US, CIs presence in the universities, etc. – being another front in a possible China-US conflict, and more the case of these aspects constituting one form in which this conflict manifest itself. The cultural question, then, would not be one extra front of these struggles, but a locus where these disagreements can happen.

Similarly to what happens in the United States, are there, in other countries, particularly in Brazil, any academic mobilization aiming at opposing or defending the presence of Confucius Institutes in their universities or is this a phenomenon restricted to the American society?

Confucius Institutes closed in different countries. The first two closed in 2010: one in the Osaka Sangyo University, in Japan, and the other in Yakutsk, in Russia. Other five CIs closed between 2013-2015: the Lyon Confucius Institute, in France, in 2013, the CIs of the Macmaster University in 2013, of the Chicago University, and of the Pennsylvania State University in 2014, all in the US, and the CI of the Stockholm University in 2015. There was also the case of two Canadian universities which ceased cooperation with Hanban, but the CIs continued to run with partners in K-12 level. And, of course, the two CIs that closed in the US recently, which we comment in the article. However, the closure of a CI does not always happen because of disagreements or divergences, and even when that is the case, the intensity varies depending on the country and period of time. In Brazil, despite the still incipient research on the topic, there are no noticeable cases of contestation of nor critiques on the CIs. In general, it appears that it is in the US that the debate regarding the CIs is more intense, be that because of the number of CIs (the US hosts by far the largest number of CIs in the world: put together the following four countries in the Top Five hosts of CIs, the number is still behind the American one), be that because these questions have been captured by the increasing China-US rivalry in the country.

Brazil-China relations were very criticized during Brazil’s 2018 presidential campaign, and part of the current administration advocates a revision of the bilateral relations. The core of the criticism is economic, but statements coming from the Brazilian Foreign Ministry indicate that culture and identity are also at stake. How can soft power and cultural diplomacy help China deal with a government that sees it with suspicion?

One of the most important roles cultural diplomacy can play is exactly helping to overcome barriers, to promote mutual cooperation, and to reduce distrust. Of course, cultural diplomacy, as a type of diplomacy, part of the foreign policy of the States, seeks to fulfill national interests. But this quest to fulfill national interests can coincide with the promotion of dialogue with other States and agents, putting in action practices which contribute to reduce differences, to generate familiarities, and to establish new ways of communication. Thus, through cooperative cultural diplomacy, China and Brazil can have reciprocal gains and help to build bridges between different cultures and peoples.

How is it to research and to teach about China at the University of Brasilia, which has a Confucius Institute? What are potential advantages and shortcomings of having a Confucius Institute at the university?

Our experience in the University, both as researchers and professors of China studies, leads us to agree with the comments made by Professor David Shambaugh, who said that the supposition that CIs in some way influence how China is studied in U.S. campi is “absolutely wrong,” since there is a complete firewall between the CIs, which teach language and culture, and the rest of the university and their curricula not only in the U.S., but all over the world. In any case, as we already stressed, there is still insufficient research on Confucius Institutes in Brazil, and a more detailed case study could point out nuances not always clear just through personal experience. For that reason, we argue the need for continued academic research on this field.

Read the article

Becard, Danielly Silva Ramos, & Menechelli Filho, Paulo. (2019). Chinese Cultural Diplomacy: instruments in China’s strategy for international insertion in the 21st Century. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 62(1), e005. Epub April 29, 2019.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201900105

About the authors

Danielly Silva Ramos Becard – University of Brasilia – Institute of International Relations. Brasília, Brazil (daniellyr@yahoo.com)

Paulo Menechelli Filho – University of Brasilia – Institute of International Relations. Brasília, Brazil (prtmfilho@gmail.com)

Victor Thives – University of Brasilia – Institute of International Relations. Brasília, Brazil (ts.victor@icloud.com)

How to cite this interview

aclessa, "Chinese Cultural Diplomacy in the 21st Century – an interview with Danielly Becard and Paulo Menechelli, by Victor Thives," in Instituto Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais, 21/05/2019, http://www.ibri-rbpi.org/?p=16789.

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