China is rapidly expanding its language and cultural centres – known as Confucius Institutes – in both number and capacity in Africa, in a move that appears to harness language diplomacy to serve its broader geopolitical and economic agendas. The Djibouti institute is the latest one to open.
This comes at a time when several of these Beijing-funded centres, based on Western university campuses, have been closed down or restricted amid concerns over foreign interference on campuses.
In its latest move China has inaugurated the Djibouti Confucius Institute in the capital city of Djibouti.
Located at the industrial and commercial high school of Djibouti, the first Djibouti Confucius Institute has been jointly established by the Chinese Sichuan Normal University and the Djibouti National Education and Vocational Training Department.
This follows shortly after an announcement earlier in 2023 that a Chinese company will be building a spaceport valued at US$1 billion on the territory of the small East African state – one of several Chinese projects mainly focused on improving infrastructure.
In another development around these centres, the Confucius Institute in Zimbabwe, which was voted the best on the continent in 2013, and was the first to have local lecturers with formal training to teach Chinese, now accepts only Zimbabweans with PhDs to teach at the institution.
An estimated 16,000 students are believed to have been trained at the institute, which recently celebrated its 15th year of existence and was set up at a time when Western sanctions were crippling Robert Mugabe’s government and forced him to look toward China for support. Mugabe’s wife Grace was among the first to learn the language and had Chinese professors visiting her at home.
However, commentators and studies continue to raise concerns over whether meaningful learning takes place at the institutes, the unequal cultural exchanges these sites embody, and their potential for promoting anti-democratic world views.
Confucius Institutes in Africa
61 Confucius Institutes have been established in 46 African countries, according to a 2022 article “Behind the rising Chinese fever in Africa”. Unlike the trends in the West, none of the institutes, to date, have been closed. The first one was set up in 2005 in Nairobi, Kenya.
South Africa, with six Confucius Institutes, has more institutes than any other country in Africa.
A total of 16 countries in Africa have incorporated the Chinese language into their national education systems, and about 30 universities have established Chinese majors.