Thu, Jan 12, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Language initiative seen as China's `Sputnik moment'


Conquering the world is not supposed to be easy, but that's exactly how things must look some days to Xu Lin (許琳), head of the government's new effort to promote the Chinese language overseas.

Xu is creating a global network of Chinese cultural centers, called Confucius Institutes, to teach foreigners throughout the world a language that has a reputation for difficulty. But far from having to round people up, Xu is finding they are beating down her door.

"There is a China frenzy around the world at the moment," she said. "The launch of this program is in response to the Chinese-language craze."

For decades, neighboring countries have viewed China with deep suspicion. But now mastering Chinese as a door to lucrative business opportunities, or simply as a matter of popular fashion, is suddenly all the vogue -- not only there but in the US and Europe as well.

Just as new, though, is the decision of the Chinese government to ride the wave, not just capitalizing on the newfound chic that surrounds the language but determined to perpetuate it as a way of extending Chinese international influence and goodwill toward the country.

For some, the choice of a slightly fusty name like Confucius Institute, which evokes images of anything but a rising new power, might seem odd given Beijing's increasing penchant for high-tech imagery and slick public relations. Yet the label speaks volumes about the country's soft power ambitions.

Among other things, using the name of the country's oldest and most famous philosopher avoids reference to the official ideology, which remains Marxism. Confucius (孔子), who was an educator and quasi-religious figure, also stands for peace and harmony, values that China insistently proclaims today, hoping to disarm fears about its rapid rise.

As China becomes a major economic and military power and its diplomacy becomes more assertive, Beijing is also working harder at winning friends and influencing people. Indeed, taken together with its recent launches of manned space flights, and the huge push to build world-class universities and to produce prize-winning scientific research, some have called the language initiative part of the nation's "Sputnik moment," after the first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

But where Sputnik fed a sense of alarm about the rise of an aggressive new superpower, the Confucius Institutes are intended to do almost the opposite, elevating the country's prestige while easing anxieties over the arrival of a new power.

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