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Seeking Soft Power, China Expands Activities in Arab Higher Education

CAIRO— Seeking “soft power” in the Arab world, China is setting up educational collaborations to invest in the Arab world’s scientific and technical workforce.

These aims were outlined in what is being called the Chinese government’s first Arab policy paper, published earlier this month.

China’s renewed interest in the region has drawn a mixed response, ranging from caution to warm welcome.

According to some analyses, China is notoriously poor at cultivating its soft power, often neglecting it in favor of a more hardball approach. A recent report by the consultancy firm Portland Communications uses data to rank the top 30 countries in terms of soft power. The United Kingdom tops the list, followed by Germany and the United States. China comes in last. Effectively, it is viewed as the worst of the world’s major countries at harnessing soft power.

Countries wielding soft power use subtle diplomatic means such as culture, political values and foreign policy rather than force or the blatant use of money to win global influence.

China ranked the lowest in the Soft Power 30 Ranking. (Map  designed by InfoTimes)

The report concludes that China’s lack of soft-power skills is perhaps the most surprising finding—noting that the communist country has made vast investments in hundreds of Confucius Institutes, nonprofit organizations affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education whose aim is to advance Chinese culture and language. They are based at universities including Saint Joseph University in Lebanon.

Mohammed Turki Al-Sudairi, a research affiliate at both the think tank Gulf Research Center and the consulting firm Silk Road Associates, says the policies outlined in China’s new paper seek to change this.

“These new initiatives will hopefully solidify greater and much-needed communication between academic and policymaking circles in China and Arab states,” he says.

Other experts agree. “Educational cooperation is crucial to China’s soft-power projection to the region,” says Degang Sun, deputy director of the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University. “And it wins the hearts and minds of the younger generation in the Arab world.”

The policy paper recommended promoting the China-Jordan University and supporting Chinese-Arab joint personnel training. The paper also recommended increasing the number of student and governmental exchanges between the two cultures and for more graduate students across a greater variety of disciplines to get involved with those exchanges.

The proposed China-Jordan University will be similar to the Egyptian Chinese University, which is under construction in Cairo and is planned as a joint venture between Liaoning University in northeast China and the Cairo office of the International Education Institution, which is an independent non-profit organization that seeks to advance international education.

The policy paper says research between universities will be encouraged in the fields of history, culture, science and technology. Strengthening Chinese language education and training for teachers in Arab countries was also listed as a priority.

The paper revealed plans to establish joint national laboratories, research centers and specialized science parks in Arab states, along with a scholarship program for young Arab researchers. A specialized center is also proposed with the aim of fostering the transfer of skills, knowledge and technologies between China and the Arab world.

Jackie Armijo, an associate professor of international affairs at Qatar University says China and the Gulf have similar research interests. “The priority placed in both China and the Arab Gulf states in developing different renewable and alternative forms of energy,” she says, “means the potential for important collaborative research, training and education is huge.”

In 2012, the number of Arab students in China exceeded 10,000, a 70 percent increase from 2010, and this number continues to rise at an average rate of 30 percent each year, according to research.

But Tim Niblock, professor of Middle East politics at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, says most of those students aren’t all that interested in Chinese culture. “So far, the educational and human-resources exchanges have been geared to short-term and practical needs,” says Niblock, “with most Arab students in China studying technical courses rather than engaging with China’s culture and history.” The number of Arab students studying Chinese is gradually rising, he said.

On the other hand, Arab countries could also do better at educating Chinese students on Arab culture. Ironically, most Chinese students with an interest in studying Arabic go to Israel, where there are more offers of scholarships and support, says Niblock. “Arab governments need to make a concerted effort to offer a welcoming and supportive environment to Chinese students,” he says. “At present very little of this nature is being done.”

Fixing this imbalance could be critical to the success or failure of China’s efforts.

In the past, Arab governments have accused similar soft-power attempts by foreign countries of being instruments of state propaganda. Experts seem to agree that the benefits for the region will outweigh the negatives, as long as China can manage to negotiate the thin line between increasing influence and being viewed as a foreign meddler.


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