Friday, May 13, 2016

How to approach Chinese public diplomacy?

vubtoday; on VUB see.

To strengthen the educational and research cooperation between China and Belgium, to support Chinese language education,  to organize cultural  exchanges and to create new insights in societal visions and models, the ”Confucius Institute Headquarters of China - Hanban” and ”VUB” signed an agreement to establish a Confucius Institute at VUB in June 2015. The festive launch event will take place on 18 May 2016. In the context of this upcoming launch, a workshop was held on “The Chinese approach to public diplomacy – A clash of ideas?” on May 4th.

. The workshop concentrated on the specific China approach to public diplomacy. After a general debate on what public diplomacy means, it became obvious that there is not yet a coherent definition, that public diplomacy, soft power and cultural diplomacy are hot topics in the research community, and hence that currently the best that can be achieved is to rely on some descriptions of how public diplomacy is situated in international relations.  Since the Confucius Institutes (CIs) are often perceived as the main instruments of propaganda and public diplomacy of P.R. China, it was justified to put emphasis on these aspects in the presentations. The workshop was organized to objectify – based on facts and opinions of international experts - the worries of part of the VUB student’s community on the compatibility of - on the one hand - the startup of an internal CI knowledge hub with - on the other hand - the principle of “free inquiry” – the main pillar of the vision of VUB.

The workshop sketched some general lines of discussion without hard conclusions: each CI is different – the agreement between the participating universities and the Confucius Institute Headquarters of China (Hanban) contains some general articles but is tailor-made for each case. The CIs are forming a worldwide network. The older CIs were often exclusively concentrated on culture and language and were often motivated by propaganda objectives, while the newer university related ones contain more general topics in education and research. The implementation agreements are defined by the partner universities and should only comply with the general outlines that are sketched by the governmental administration, justified by the provision of the financial support.  The financing is based on 50/50 % matching funds. ”While Hanban itself can be seen as a public diplomacy instrument of the Chinese government, the individual CIs are platforms for university cooperation acting as independent knowledge hubs that are compliant to the rules of the universities involved.” (Xinning Song, Chinese director of the CI at VUB). The Confucius institute at VUB is a research institute and hence, it can be anticipated that soft power, economic and cultural diplomacy will be research subjects taken up in the strategic agenda of the CI.

“Explicitly addressing and understanding Chinese public diplomacy is important for acquiring the necessary background in joint research projects and knowledge production in any thematic field of China-Europe collaboration projects.” (Jan Cornelis, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the CI at VUB) A global approach and guidelines are at this stage difficult to extract from the discussion. Knowing how to work together in an EU-China context is extremely important and for each individual project it remains an art to bridge cultural differences and get rid of pre-established prejudices.

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