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China, Soft Power, and Confucius Institutes with Jennifer Hubbert

Theodore Powers and Jennifer Hubbert

March 18, 2020

Association for the Anthropology of Policy

For those who have not yet read your book, could you offer a short overview of the focus, content, and argument? China in the World is the first book-length ethnography of Confucius Institutes (CIs) and soft power policy. CIs are Chinese language and culture programs around the world that are funded by the Chinese government and one of China’s most visible, ubiquitous, and controversial globalization projects and aim to smooth China’s path to superpower status. Their establishment has given rise to voluble and contentious public debates in host countries, where they have been both welcomed as a source of educational funding and feared as spy outposts, neocolonial incursions, and obstructions to academic freedom. This book thus examines the production of power in practice, exploring the rise of CIs as a branding mechanism for China. Ultimately the book contends that the debates and controversies over CIs say as much about American ideological preconceptions of the changing global order as they do about the empirical nature of the Confucius Institute programs themselves.

What were the broad objectives of the project as you began and how did these change over time? China in the World seeks to offer a different perspective on international relations and the production of power, demonstrating how ethnography can illuminate the mechanisms of power, how it works, and for what goals. Moving beyond the binary question of whether CIs are a pernicious threat to liberal education or benevolent foreign language programs, China in the World investigates what actually takes place in CI classrooms. Through this approach, I examine the ways in which China attempts to exercise soft power and produce new forms of globalization and modernization, and how those attempts are met and negotiated by the targets of those policies. Like other CI watchers, I was expecting to see significant instances of violations of freedom of speech in the classroom. And indeed, I found teachers directing conversations away from controversial topics and textual materials. But, what struck me and pushed me to rethink how the book interrogated the concept of “freedom of speech” was a realization of how dominant American conceptions of free speech can paradoxically diminish its usefulness as an analytical tool for examining human rights.

How did you go about designing this project, and what led you to utilize the methodology that you employed? My approach was a direct response to methodologies employed by earlier scholars studying soft power or the CIs or both. When I began this project, most extant studies had been conducted by scholars in the fields of international relations and political science, and focused on the political intentions of state policy. However, these analyses were unable to provide much insight into the nature and practice of policy implementation and seemed to often equate intention with effect, falling prey to what Gritt Nielsen calls the rationality-technology-subjectivity problem of policy analysis. I sought therefore to evaluate soft power ethnographically, to move into CI classrooms where policy was implemented to understand how policies result in outcomes and meanings that are often beyond the control of state desire.

What are the broader theoretical contributions that your book makes to make to anthropology as a discipline? Cultural anthropology and international relations are arguably the two disciplines most concerned with the global, but there is often a broad conceptual divide in disciplinary research practices. While anthropology has long been engaged with “politics,” manifest in concerns with power, rule, and social organization, and with the articulations and effects of globalization on the local, it has been slower to turn its critical theoretical lens on the relations between nation-states, international policy, and the very constitution of the global itself. This book is an attempt to offer an anthropology of international relations, to make global structures “strange” through making the nation-state and its policy articulations familiar, to ask how differently situated actors might claim culture as a means of constructing and promoting power.

What are the implications of your project and its conclusions for anthropologists of policy? Drawing upon earlier anthropological work on policy intention and implementation, this book grapples with how culture mediates between assumed transfers of power from China to the West and challenges us to rethink the manner in which Chinese “culture” is summoned and reconstituted in diverse and meaningful ways as a form of soft power. While policy provides a productive lens for studying the operations of state power, looking at it anthropologically helps us to realize that the “power” of policy is neither a zero-sum game, nor inevitably efficacious. This in turn helps us to denaturalize the nature of the state and to understand how collusions and conflicts between China and the United States are linked to the manner in which policy is implemented and consumed, not just how it is envisioned. What messages, if any, does your book have for policy makers or advocates or both? One of the interesting features of this project was in fact engagement with the various advocates for and critics of CIs and the way in which this research landed in the middle of these oftentimes quite vehement debates. Ironically, members of both sides of the debate have cited my findings, sometimes even offering the same “evidence” from my research to support their respective points. Alongside the book’s refusal to provide them with easy answers to questions about the nature, production, and effects of power, I would urge policy makers and advocates to remain critical of external forms of funding that have ideological purposes but also to avoid assumptions about the transfer of power that happens through soft power policy.

What is the most important advice you would give to the policy ethnographer? While my earlier initiatives had all been place based, this project took me into classrooms throughout the United States and China, on CI-sponsored study trips to China, and into university boardrooms and the halls of Congress. At the same time, my conversations and interviews were with a broad spectrum of interlocuters: students, parents, teachers, university administrators, high school principals, human rights advocates, scholars, and senators. And the textual materials I examined included textbooks, policy documents, memoranda of understanding, congressional hearings, and many others. To understand policy anthropologically, I would argue, requires understanding it from all of these angles. So, I would encourage policy ethnographers to understand that while this methodological approach is necessary for an anthropology of policy, it can be fairly time intensive.


Jennifer Hubbert is associate professor of anthropology at Lewis & Clark College. Her research in the field of public culture encompasses the theoretical intersections and implications of governance, political economy, and nation building. She currently holds a two-year fellowship with USC’s Center for Public Diplomacy to study urban policy transfer.

If you would like to contribute to the ASAP section news column, please contact the contributing editor, Theodore Powers at theodore-powers@uiowa.edu.


Cite as: Hubbert, Jennifer. 2020. “China, Soft Power, and Confucius Institutes with Jennifer Hubbert.” Anthropology News website, March 18, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1358

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