Confucius Institutes: The Successful Stealth “Soft Power” Penetration of American Universities

Rose L W LUQIU*, John D. McCarthy

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


By 2016, Hanban, a propaganda arm of the Chinese government, had successfully established Confucius Institutes (CIs) at 15% of the largest institutions of higher education, including some of the most prestigious institutions, and in almost every state across the United States. The authors describe in detail the extent of penetration by Hanban and its strategies of cooptation and discuss the public reaction to these “soft power” beachheads. This study employs four sources of evidence to help demonstrate how and why the Chinese “soft power” initiative has been successful in the United States. First, the authors compare 655 of the largest 4-year colleges and universities to assess what kind of universities have been targeted by the Chinese government. Second, we conducted a survey of U.S. directors of CIs to explore their perceptions of their own CI’s public image and the relationship between their U.S. university and its Chinese partner university. Third, the authors analyze 2,733 news stories mentioning CIs gathered from U.S. newspapers during the period from 2004 to 2016 to learn how CIs projected their legitimacy as an integral part of universities across the United States. Finally, the authors analyze 107 CI websites at U.S. universities to help describe their general features and their activity in public outreach. With very positive local media coverage, CIs are active in curriculum and public outreach, and the majority of U.S. directors of CIs are confident about their public image and satisfied with their relationship with Chinese partner universities and Hanban. The authors conclude by speculating about why this Chinese “soft power” initiative has been so successful.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)620-643
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Higher Education
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2019

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Education

User-Defined Keywords

  • academic freedom
  • Chinese government
  • Confucius Institute
  • propaganda
  • public university
  • soft power
  • US news media


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