Confucius Institutes: Building a Capacity for Business with China

By Madeline Elminowski*

Confucius Institute at the Universidade Federal do Ceará in Brazil/ Universidade Federal do Ceará/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China’s Confucius Institutes (CIs) in Latin America and the Caribbean form a cornerstone of its global public diplomacy efforts – with an increasingly clear emphasis on laying the groundwork for deeper business relations. As the U.S.-China rivalry has heated up, these educational and cultural promotion centers, which are partially financed by China’s Ministry of Education, have come under greater scrutiny in the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe. Questions about Chinese propaganda and free speech have led to the closure of a growing number of CIs in those countries.

  • Since the first CI was established in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2006 in Mexico, the number has expanded to 44 in 21 countries, and Chinese government statements indicate plans to create more. According to Beijing media, more than one million students across the region have so far engaged with CIs. While concerns about the CIs’ operations have also been raised in these countries, debate has been more muted and at least so far has not led to the closure of any.

CIs worldwide feature curricula focused on teaching Mandarin and Chinese government-approved courses on Chinese civilization and history. In Latin America and the Caribbean, they aggressively tie these courses to training in Chinese business practices. In 2012, for example, a “Business Confucius Institute” was established at the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado in São Paulo, Brazil. Courses on China’s business lexicon, how to interact with Chinese business partners, and how to leverage business opportunities with Chinese companies are now common in other Confucius programs.

  • In welcome ceremonies for students, CIs highlight these themes, promote study-abroad programs and business courses, and present themselves as places to develop specific business skills directly transferrable to the job market. They often offer classes of varying lengths, up to eight weeks, to help students acquire the interpersonal skills and practical knowledge for business transactions with Chinese companies.
  • Language classes in the CI at Chile’s Universidad Santo Tomás, for example, are pitched as a way to become fluent in the language of Chile’s “main commercial partner.” The CI at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (one of 11 CIs in Brazil) offers a business-oriented program of study designed for employment for Chinese companies in Rio and for Brazilian national companies seeking to develop a Chinese partnership. CIs serve as channels for interested Chinese companies to recruit employees and interns from the region. The Universidade Estadual Paulista’s CI routinely posts job opportunities on its website. It also offers an annual job fair to connect Chinese companies located in Brazil with local Brazilians interested in working in China-Brazil business relations.

The CIs are increasingly functioning as conduits to promote Chinese business relations with the region, often incorporating events to discuss Chinese business projects and showcasing potential professional avenues of advancement for students.

  • China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was the main topic of a World Forum of Chinese Studies at the Universidad National La Plata in Argentina in 2018. Speakers from both Latin America and China discussed inclusion of Latin America in the BRI and its potential to generate opportunities for Chinese tourism in the region.

The Confucius Institutes are a major element of China’s long-term strategy for promoting trade and economic relations with countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. While the Biden Administration is now slowly rolling out its “Build Back Better” initiative, China’s expanding Belt and Road Initiative has momentum – 18 countries in the region have signed on to the BRI since 2017. CIs support this effort by helping to train a generation of Latin American professionals to work more closely with Chinese partners. The potential long-term implications for the United States of a Latin American workforce and business class better positioned to leverage attractive opportunities in and with China are clear.

November 11, 2021

*Madeline Elminowski is a master’s student in International Affairs, with a focus on Comparative and Regional Studies. This post reflects work carried out for a CLALS project on China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State.

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