Soft power as a policy rationale for international education in China Angelina Maksimova, Beijing University PhD Candidate, Foreign Economic Relations Promotion Division Official, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia

In Estudios, Política exterior by Xulio Ríos

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, annual growth in the number of international students worldwide was 4.8% and the OECD predicted no fewer than 8 million international students by 2025. Countries invest a lot of resources into soft power tools such as culture and education to attract international students. The largest share of the international student population is historically concentrated in the Western part of the world and previously China was seen as a major source of international students. However, with China’s reform and opening up, there are changes in this pattern. Due to China’s efforts to organise large-scale cultural activities in other countries, allocate substantial financial resources towards cultivating a better image, promote the capacity of its mass media in international communications, and sponsor Confucius Institutes throughout the world, China has become an attractive destination for studies and research.

The current paper discusses the “soft power” concept and index, examines the role of international education as a tool of “soft power,” looks at statistics and movements of international students worldwide, and analyses China’s case.

The “soft power” concept and index

In 1990, Harvard University political theorist Joseph Nye described “soft power” as the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion or payments. [1] To strengthen its position in the international arena and gain some prestige, as well as to create favourable conditions for long-term socio-economic development, a state uses a variety of foreign policy tools involving both hard and soft power. But hard power means such as military actions or economic sanctions are costly; that is why nations prefer soft power. Soft power benefits a state regardless of its size –even if it is hard for smaller states to affect the behaviour of bigger ones, they use soft power to attract partners. [2]

Since 2015, the Soft Power 30 index, based on Nye’s sources of soft power, has been generated annually from polling data collected in 25 countries, where respondents are asked to rate countries based on seven categories, including culture, luxury goods, technology products, cuisine, liveability, friendliness, and foreign policy. For the fifth year running, the countries that constitute the top ten remain the same: France, UK, Germany, Sweden, the US, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands. For European countries, soft power strengths include a vast diplomatic network, membership in multilateral and international organisations, an extensive network of cultural centres such as Alliance Francaise, British Council and Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), rich cultural (literature, film and music, among others) heritage, successful performance in sports, a high number of tourist attractions, world-class universities and contribution to global issues such as climate change. The US dominates in the Culture, Digital, and Education sub-indices of the Soft Power 30 index and has strong performance in the Enterprise sub-index, although American soft power has declined since the beginning of the Trump administration. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration decisions, particularly the arrest of Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, also negatively affected the index in 2019. The core of Japan continues to place high across the Engagement, Digital, Culture, and Enterprise sub-indices. In 2019, China ranked 27th, followed by Hungary, Turkey, and Russia. Despite the low overall ranking, China has a strong position in “soft power” among Asian countries –4 th out of 10, after Japan, South Korea and Singapore. As economic power is one of the significant preconditions for exercising soft power, China’s economic growth creates favourable conditions for its soft power. [3]

To promote a peaceful and friendly image of its growing economy, China uses its public diplomacy, culture, and international education as means of soft power. Since the 1990s, China has established or normalised diplomatic relations with the Western world, approached multilateral organisations, settled many territorial disputes, increased the number of official visits with strategic partners at home and abroad and modernised its news media. Even if some infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) do not inspire trust in many countries due to corruption in recipient nations, low benefits to local people and insufficient local business engagement in Chinese projects, traditional Chinese culture – with its long history and wide range of traditions – as well as the Chinese language remain attractive to foreigners. That is why China’s leaders pay particular attention to cultural (文化软实力) and educational (教育软实力) soft power.

The political report to the 16th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in 2002, the year China entered the WTO, highlighted that culture intertwines with economics and politics. [4] The focus of the 13th collective study session of the Politburo of the 16th CCP Central Committee in 2004 was how to develop China’s philosophy and social sciences. In November 2004, the first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul, South Korea. [5] Confucius Institutes (孔子学院) now operate in 154 countries around the world through 548 Confucius Institutes and 1,193 centres in schools with 46,700 full-time and part-time teachers. [6]

Former President Hu Jintao advised giving more attention to the major practical issues of cultural development and upgrading China’s soft power. During the 17th National Congress of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China, a year before the 2008 Olympics, he focused on developing cultural soft power as a foreign policy priority. In 2013, President Xi Jinping vowed to promote China’s cultural soft power by disseminating modern Chinese values and showing the charm of Chinese culture to the world. [7]

Concept of “soft power” in education

The international community used education as a soft power long before the concept was developed. Around a century ago, the United Kingdom implemented the Rhodes Scholarship programme, which aimed to promote British imperialist values around the world. [8] Notable alumni of the programme include former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, J.W. Fulbright and Bill Clinton. In 1946, the US launched the Fulbright Program to spread American values abroad. More than 325,000 Fulbrighters from over 155 countries have participated so far. [9] 38 alumni have served as heads of state or government of their home countries (Belgium, Guyana, Croatia, Costa Rica, Afghanistan, Slovenia, Malawi, etc.). In the former Soviet Union, Patrice Lumumba University (now the People’s Friendship University of Russia) taught the principles of socialism to students from so-called Third World countries. Its alumni include ministers and leaders of Palestine, Iran, Sudan, Georgia and Uganda.

Research shows that the provision of educational opportunities for foreign students is one of the most important instruments of soft power. [10] Foreign students who learn the language of their host country are gradually involved in the science and culture of that country. International students promote intercultural relationships on the campuses where they study, contribute to local economies by paying tuition fees, living and travel expenses, and often enter the local labour market as highly qualified experts during their studies or after graduation. After returning home with the knowledge and personal relations they have acquired, foreign students are expected to become effective transmitters of the language and culture of the country where they studied. [11] As a result, the returns from national education as an instrument of soft power are much higher than those of military force and other hard power tools.

International mobility as a soft power tool

Between 1998 and 2018, the annual average growth of international and foreign tertiary students was 4.8% according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). [12] In 2018, there were over 5.6 million international students, more than twice the number in 2005. Most of them were enrolled in OECD states: the US (18%), UK (8%), Australia (8%) and Germany (6%). The OECD claims that students from Asia form the largest group of international students in tertiary education at all levels. Together, the People’s Republic of China and India contribute more than 30% of all mobile students enrolled in OECD countries. According to UNESCO, only 2% of China’s tertiary students and 1% of India’s tertiary students were enrolled abroad in 2018, and those mostly in OECD states. [13] Among international students in China, more than half come from Asian countries. [14]

Among the reasons for mobility are historical patterns, a lack of educational facilities in the country of origin, the prestige of educational institutions in the destination country, differences in the returns of or rewards for education and skills in origin and destination countries, better economic performance in the host country, exchange rates, more affordable mobility (for instance, due to higher education subsidies) and higher-quality education in the host country. In addition, international students might be attracted by non-economic factors, such as political stability in the host country or cultural and religious similarities between origin and host countries. For example, Chinese and Vietnamese students are the largest group of international students in Japan and South Korea, while Korean and Japanese students combined exceed one-third of all international students. [15]

International mobility has an obvious impact on economies and innovation. First, international students often pay higher tuition fees than domestic students. Secondly, they also contribute to host economies by paying living and travel expenses. During the financial crisis of 2008, when higher education institutions in leading destination countries were facing financial challenges, there was a considerable increase in self-funded Chinese and government supported Saudi Arabian students. [16] International students are also likely to integrate into domestic labour markets and contribute to research and innovation. Across OECD countries, international students have the same study patterns as their local counterparts, with the largest share entering the widely understood fields of business, administration, and law, followed by engineering, manufacturing, and construction. Last but not least, after their studies or by maintaining strong links with nationals in their home countries, international students may share knowledge, technology and experience in a way that enables their home countries to integrate into global networks. For example, earlier Chinese students benefited from supportive government policies and, after returning, from attractive employment opportunities in the growing economy. However, due to the economic slowdown, Chinese students have started questioning the value of investing in an education abroad when neither host countries’ immigration policies nor institutional support for career services can provide opportunities. [17]

Before the pandemic, the OECD suggested that by 2025 there would be no fewer than 8 million international students studying outside their home countries. However, in 2020, higher education institutions around the world introduced policies to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially affecting more than 3.9 million international students studying in OECD countries. The pandemic has affected the migration opportunities of international students, as well as the learning process and delivery method of course material, and students have begun to question the value of their degrees, all of which could potentially have an impact on international student mobility in the coming years.

International education as China’s soft power Providing education to foreign students in China has been considered a diplomatic rather than an educational issue with the objective of training foreign talents to “know China”(之花), “be friendly towards China” (优化), and “love China” (爱花). [18] Since 1950, China has granted governmental scholarships to students from socialist countries and other ally countries.

Along with marketisation in the Chinese higher education sector, the government began to decentralise its power by providing education for foreign students in individual higher education institutions and self-funded international students started to enrol. A Chinese language proficiency test (汉语水平考试; HSK) was established in 1990 as the threshold for enrolling international students in individual programmes. Universities that run courses for international students are authorised and subsidised by the Ministry of Education. In 1997, the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) established government scholarships for international students. If before 2000, international students only had limited course options in the arts, engineering, Chinese language, and medicine, now almost all courses are open.

There is a lack of empirical reviews and specific case studies on returns from China’s soft power; however, a growing number of international students coming to China indicates a positive trend. According to the Ministry of Education, the number of international students is annually increasing: 492,185 foreign students from 196 countries and regions studied in 1,004 higher education institutions in 31 regions across mainland China in 2018, an increase of 3,013 (0.62%) in comparison with 2017. 12.81% are Chinese government scholarship students. The majority (59.95%) of international students were Asian (from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam); [18] 16.57% were African, 14.96% European (with the highest number from France), 7.26% American, and 1.27% from Oceania. Most of the students studied in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Liaoning, Tianjin, Guangdong, Hubei, Yunnan, Shandong, Guangxi, Sichuan, Heilongjiang, Shaanxi and Fujian. A growing number of students (52.44%, an increase of 12.28% compared to 2017, including 25,618 doctoral students and 59,444 master students) are receiving an academic education. In 2018, there were 234,063 non-degree international students.

Apart from Chinese government scholarships, a wide variety of other initiatives led by the government are aimed both at attracting international talents to China (including the “Belt and Road” Talent Development Programme, the Confucius scholarship, the Silk Road Scholarship programme, the Study in China Programme, the Schwarzman Scholars Programme and the Generation programme for UK students) and sending local talents to study abroad (through the Chinese Ambassador Scholarship, the 100 000 Strong Initiative to go to the US, etc.). [19] The China –Central and Eastern European (CEE) Institute in Budapest, Hungary is responsible for building ties and strengthening partnerships with academic institutions and think tanks in 17 Central and Eastern European countries. Scholars and researchers in China and CEE countries work jointly on research projects, field studies, seminars and lecture series, some training programmes for younger students, translation, and publication, etc. [20] According to the Ministry of Education, a large number of outstanding alumni are Chinese government scholarship students, who have made positive contributions to promoting friendly cooperation and exchanges between China and foreign countries. [21]


Government power can be hard –military or trade, or soft– through culture, diplomacy, education, science, sports and tourism. Although the concept of “soft power” was first formulated by Harvard University political theorist Joseph Nye, cultural and educational exchanges have been practised by governments around the globe for ages. The idea behind it is that military actions and economic sanctions are costly, so countries prefer to invest in “soft power.” Since 2015, Nye and his followers have compiled a “soft power” index and chronicle how the use of soft power in Western countries has a positive impact on their image, with slight variations due to political changes in administration. International student movements also show that the developed countries historically are the most attractive destinations for studies and research, but developing countries are the main “sources” of students. International education is not only a profitable trade in services – international students pay higher fees, contribute by paying living and travel costs, integrate into local work markets and contribute to research and innovation, but also a smart tool for public diplomacy – after returning to their home countries, international students with new language knowledge and a deeper understanding of the host culture establish life-long relations and promote the host country’s image.

China acknowledges that international education is a “soft power” tool and one of its long-term “soft power” strategies. The government invests a lot into attracting international students and the numbers of international students were on the rise, at least before the pandemic. Although there is no empirical evidence or case studies on the returns gained from investments into international education in China, as the famous Chinese philosopher and politician Guan Zhong (管仲) said: “If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children” (十年树木百年树人).



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