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The Confucius Institutes and the Chinese Renaissance

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The development of the Confucius Institutes should not be interpreted as a mere linguistic phenomenon, it reveals six of the main features defining the Chinese renaissance -- economic reemergence, speed of change, socio-political transformation, civilizational revival, China's outward projection and the entry, through a cognitive shift, into the era of a "New Sinology."

First, China's economic progress not only created the material conditions for the Chinese government to establish an international network promoting Mandarin, but it also guarantees a high demand for the Chinese language. The attractiveness of a language is proportionate with the perceived power and prestige of its country of origin, and, when the Chinese economy surpasses the U.S. GDP by 2020, the interest for the sinograms will reach unprecedented level.

Second, if the Confucius Institute has risen among broader geopolitical dynamics, the pace of its expansion is also a call to meditate on the speed of change which characterizes our time. While the first Institute was established in the Korean capital, Seoul, in 2004, more than 400 centers in 108 countries and regions are now part of a global network. 70 of the world's top 200 universities have opened a Confucius Institute, and there are more than 400 universities waiting to join the system.

By 2020, the network will be composed of 1000 centers, it will then be equivalent to the Alliance Française an organization which is as large as the British Council, Goethe Institute and Cervantes Institute combined. Beijing will achieve in less than two decades what Paris has realized in 130 years -the Alliance was founded in 1883.

Third, the existence of the Confucius Institute points at a striking socio-political transformation. Before Deng Xiaoping's "Reform and Opening Up" relations between Chinese and foreigners were marked by fear and suspicion, within the Confucius Institutes across the world -- there are 70 centers in the U.S. -- the vast majority of the Chinese professors interact with their students and colleagues in a constructive spirit of openness and friendship.
Fourth, the organization's appellation is a reminder that China's modernization is more about the reinterpretation of the Chinese tradition than a passive Westernization, the evocation of Confucius (551-479BC) stands as an obvious reference to the classical foundations of the Chinese civilization.

China's renewal, both advance and return, breakthrough and continuity, is expressed in the name of an institution created 25 centuries after the death of the country's greatest educator - the first character of the Analects is "学", xue, "study."

Fifth, the Confucius Institute network is at the avant-garde of China's global projection, one of the most impactful dimensions of the Chinese renaissance. Through the Institutes the world becomes obviously more familiar with the Chinese language and the Chinese people but they are also vectors for the outward journey of the Chinese culinary practices, tea customs, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), calligraphy and other components of the Chinese culture.
The internationalization of the Chinese education system has been hitherto associated with the presence of foreign academic institutions in the Middle Country -- New York University Shanghai officially started operation this month -- but one should be ready for a new stage, the global projection of the Chinese schools. China Europe International Business School first opened in Shanghai (1994), it enlarged its scope of action with a campus in Beijing (2010) and programs delivered in the Republic of Ghana (2009).

Although it is still a nascent process -- Zhejiang University will open facilities in the UK, Xiamen University has opted for Malaysia -- it will evolve rapidly, not at the pace of the Confucius Institute, but in a way which will certainly modify the global education landscape.
Chinese institutions of higher education have taken Western academic structures as their models for one century -- the Imperial University of Peking, China's first university and the immediate predecessor of Beijing University was established in 1898 -- but the relations have become now more balanced, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), a highly visible publication of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University was originally a benchmarking exercise for the Chinese universities, in a decade, it has evolved into one of the references for universities worldwide.

Last but not least, a reflection on the Confucius Institutes introduces to a significant cognitive shift, the Far Eastern land can not be regarded as the external "other" anymore, it is a living matrix of our shared global modernity.

Whatever the location of the traditional Chinatown it remained, in the collective psyche, a peripheral enclave on the margins of the community, the Confucius Institute not only fully integrates the local environment but it co-operates with the most prestigious foreign academic institutions.

Last year, the Confucius Headquarters, known as the Hanban, took another timely and revealing initiative, the "New Sinology Plan" provides funding for international graduate students to conduct researches in humanities. This Chinese financial support of young foreign sinologists for studies at top Chinese universities is the concrete mark of the "New Sinology" era whose very first chapters have been written by Benjamin Schwartz, Pierre Ryckmans or Geremie Barmé.

Liberated from the postulates of orientalism, the "New Sinology" is more apt to capture the dynamics of a country which has fully re-entered history, China is not only on the map but the Middle Country has gained a new centrality within our world.

The Chinese renaissance widens the Chinese people's horizon but it also enlarges a planet which has been, to a certain extent, contracting for more than five centuries, it is in this context that each classroom of the Confucius Institute can be seen as a laboratory in which an unprecedented cross-fertilization between China and the world is taking place.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.