oDR: Analysis

China polishes its image in Central Asia through the soft power of language

School donations that come with compulsory Chinese lessons help Beijing to convert younger generations to its politics

Niva Yau
23 March 2021, 12.00am
Image: Yam G-Jun

From the moment they push the Chinese lion door knob to enter, children at Bishkek’s school No. 95 leave Kyrgyzstan and enter a little slice of China.

All of the signs and posters feature Chinese symbols, quotes by the Chinese philosopher Confucius are framed next to those by Kyrgyz poets, and all of the appliances have been made in China – from lights to fire extinguishers, security cameras and sport supplies.

In Kyrgyzstan, the state school system is funded by the education ministry. However, donations from local and foreign entities determine how well-equipped and modern these institutions are.

“The Chinese government financed the construction of our school in 2017, on the condition that we encourage Chinese language teaching,” said Azhar Imanalieva, deputy director of foreign languages at the school, as she gave me a tour in flawless Chinese. “The Chinese Embassy and the Confucius Institute supplied all the resources, like computers, interactive boards, and a lot of books.”

A voice in global affairs

Confucius Institutes provides public educational partnerships between schools and universities in China and schools and universities in other countries. The stated aim of the programme is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally and facilitate cultural exchanges. However, the organisation has been criticised over concerns of the Chinese government’s undue overseas influence and suppression of academic freedom.

Walking around the school, located in the south-west of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, provided plenty of visual stimulus thanks to an array of bright red ornaments gifted by the Chinese ambassador that managed to overshadow the orange furniture.

“Parents have chosen this school because we offer Chinese language classes to young children,” Azhar explained. “From fifth grade, Chinese language classes are free and compulsory, but from second grade we are already providing opt-in, fee-paying classes for those who want a good foundation. About 80% of our pupils enroll early.”

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China’s soft power agenda in Kyrgyzstan is betting on the next generation. “There is a plan to station one Chinese language teacher in every primary school in Kyrgyzstan,” said Wang Tong-chuang, a Chinese businessman familiar with the work of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek. Since the summer of 2019, Confucius Institutes in Kyrgyzstan have sent Chinese teachers to even the most remote corners of the country, the southwestern Batken region.

Over time, the Chinese Communist Party has found that Chinese language promotion is the most effective way of encouraging a Chinese voice in global affairs. Economic engagement worked only at the elite level, to incentivise rent-seeking political elites to adopt China’s stance in global affairs.

“There is a plan to station one Chinese language teacher in every primary school in Kyrgyzstan”

Economic engagement with Central Asian countries has helped China to quell Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang. Better terms of trade have encouraged regional leaders to turn a blind eye towards the deportation and oppression of Uyghur groups living in the region.

In 2018, a rare comment by a Kyrgyz politician suggested that China had applied pressure after a scandal over a power station failure in Bishkek, showing that China was concerned about “anti-China” speeches in the country’s parliament. Indeed, as dependency on Chinese funds grows, Central Asian countries face increasing pressure to avoid “upsetting” China.

Of course, economic engagement and occasional political speeches would not be enough to generate foreign support for China and so that’s where soft power instruments, specifically language promotion, come in. Having access to information in the Chinese language means that Central Asian youths can consume the Chinese government’s carefully curated propaganda. The Communist Party is thus able to spread certain narratives to other countries.

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Kyrgyzstan's parliament | (c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy. All rights reserved

Out of the dozen Kyrgyz youths I met who had studied in China, many returned home telling of a positive experience, and that they went on to challenge their friends and family who held anti-China sentiments. There is widespread sinophobia in Central Asia and many people resent the treatment of their fellow countrymen and women in so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang.

Thirty years of soft power

When it comes to the systematic oppression in Xinjiang, or protests in Hong Kong, however, the Kyrgyz youths I spoke to had adopted China’s official talking points. In Xinjiang, they told me, the Communist Party was only pursuing a strategy of combating terrorism and foreign influence. One girl said: “All these negative views [about China from her friends and family] arise because they don’t know the real China and they have never been to China.”

China started building its soft power in Central Asia in the 1990s. The charity department (Gōngyì bù) within Chinese embassies across Central Asia was one of its earliest soft power instruments, responding to requests by local governments, providing goods to retirement homes and women’s relief centres.

Chinese embassies in Central Asia also worked with a few, select NGOs, such as the environmental group Ekosan in Uzbekistan and Yenmen, a charity for the underprivileged in Turkmenistan. These local NGOs also receive aid from other foreign embassies and international organisations, and the Chinese funding in these cases helps to improve China’s image, both among other international donors and recipients.

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After China offers to provide COVID-19 vaccines, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev meets Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Du Dewen | (c) Xinhua / Alamy. All rights reserved

Under the Xi administration, since 2013, Chinese embassies in Central Asia have become more open in their civil society engagement. The Chinese embassy has funded five women’s vocational centres in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe. The Chinese embassy in the Kazakhstani capital of Nur-Sultan funded an audio-visual classroom in the Eurasian National University. In addition, under Xi, embassies in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan kick-started projects with international NGOs, such as Austria’s SOS Children’s Villages, an organisation that runs orphanages worldwide.

Yet, most of the charitable work carried out by Chinese embassies in Central Asia is focused on a two-pronged agenda: a stronger engagement with ethnic minorities who have ties to Chinese territory; and promoting the Chinese language.

Surveillance via charity

Chinese surveillance (under the pretext of charity) of ethnic Uyghur and ethnic Dungans communities in Central Asia, has been pervasive since the 1990s. Members of Chinese embassies frequently visit Dungan and Uyghur villages, especially prior to Muslim and Chinese holidays, inviting elder leaders of the Dungan and Uyghur community to embassy-hosted Muslim events, and sponsoring events hosted by Dungan and Uyghur associations. At every occasion, Chinese officials never fail to present Beijing’s official political view on the situation in Xinjiang, in an effort to stifle any potential support for Uyghur separatism across the border.

Bypassing the post-Soviet generation, which is still influenced by Russia and Russian-language content, China’s objective is to lure the Central Asian youth towards amicable relations through language.

As seen in each of the Central Asian countries outlined above, Chinese embassies have wedged themselves into the school system by donating computers, music players and other equipment, thus securing the possibility to open a free curriculum of Chinese language courses. Thousands of Chinese language books and cultural items have been distributed, along with stationary supplies and computers, from primary school right up to university level.

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A series of protests in Kyrgyzstan point to growing public feeling against China, one of the country’s biggest investors.

A mandatory step in this educational strategy is ‘China’s Journey’, a propaganda documentary about life in Xinjiang, dubbed in local Central Asian languages. After screening the film to pupils, Chinese ambassadors then enthusiastically invite them to apply for a government scholarship to study in China.

Kyrgyz youth grow up in a generally sinophobic environment, but many of the pupils I spoke to were convinced by the positive image of China that they saw in ‘China’s Journey’. The propaganda worked.

“The first positive impression I learnt about China was from the ‘China’s Journey’ show,” said Bek, who started learning Chinese aged 12 when he enrolled in Bishkek’s No. 69 school, one of the first schools in Kyrgyzstan to introduce Chinese language classes. Now 24, Bek is studying for a Master’s degree in Shanghai.

According to data from the Chinese embassies in Central Asia, in 2019 alone, about 14,000 Kazakh, 4,600 Kyrgyz, 3,500 Tajik, 6,500 Uzbek and more than 2,000 Turkmen students were studying in China. Bek’s success story is not an isolated case.

And Central Asian officials appear to have accepted China’s soft power agenda, often accompanying Chinese ambassadors during visits to schools, while teachers and principals welcome Chinese donations.

China’s soft power goal in this decade is to target anti-China sentiment around the world. Its efforts in Central Asia are clearly already paying off.

Image: Yam G-Jun

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