The role of new Chinese migrants and cultural-educational institutions in China’s soft power development in maritime Southeast Asia were discussed by experts at this webinar.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
Online Workshop on Rising China and New Chinese Migrants in Southeast Asia
Tuesday, 8 December 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “Chinese Culture and China’s Soft Power in Maritime Southeast Asia”. Supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), the webinar is part of an online workshop on “Rising China and New Chinese Migrants in Southeast Asia”. Moderated by Professor Leo Suryadinata (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute), the webinar featured the insights of Professor Lourdes M. Tanhueco-Nepomuceno (Confucius Institute, University of the Philippines), Dr Peter Chang (Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya), and Dr Ho Yi Kai (Confucius Institute, Nanyang Technological University). The speakers discussed the developments and consequences of China’s rising soft power across maritime Southeast Asia.
Professor Lourdes Tanhueco-Nepomuceno began her presentation by arguing that China’s global networks of Confucius Institutes in the Philippines may be regarded as a form of educational diplomacy. She emphasised that understanding China’s soft power in the Philippines is an important task given the escalating contested geopolitical claims around the South China Sea, in which the Philippines also has a stake, as well as the unfulfilled diplomatic promises between the China, United States and the Philippines. She said that the effectiveness of this educational diplomacy will need more academic and policy attention. Professor Tanhueco-Nepomuceno reported that her current study investigates the perceptions of the Confucius Institute by University of the Philippines students. Her findings show that while these university students do not fully support the overall geopolitical actions by China, the education received at the Confucius Institution has helped to open alternative perspectives and views about their country’s relations with China and disputes such as the South China Sea dispute among the Filipino university students.
Dr Peter Chang’s presentation focused on the Xiamen University Malaysia campus and its potential for soft power. He said that the establishment of the first Xiamen University overseas campus has been one of the many exemplars of China’s expanding soft power in Malaysia. Dr Chang said that the establishment of Confucius Institutes in Malaysia is much more symbolic of the relationship between Malaysia and China rather than promoting the Chinese language, especially as the country already has a pre-existing vernacular Chinese school system. In contrast, the establishment of Xiamen University in Malaysia represents not just about China’s endeavour in opening up to the world (e.g., by accepting international students in their universities) but more importantly, stepping out to the world by shaping young minds beyond their national borders. However, Dr Chang argued that understanding Xiamen University solely as a symbol of soft power represents a missed opportunity to critically examine Malaysia’s role in mediating China’s influence in its country. Dr Chang suggested that Xiamen University should not be understood as a conduit for China’s soft power, but a two-way bridge that strengthens China-Malaysia relations. This could be evinced from the development of Malaysia-oriented courses in Xiamen University, such as the Malaysia Studies Programme that allows Chinese students at Xiamen University Malaysia to learn more about Malaysia. Apart from promoting bilateral ties between China and Malaysia, Dr Chang suggested that Xiamen University also has potential to strengthen multi-lateral ties between China, Malaysia and the West, given the rising exposure to higher education in the West among Chinese Malaysian students.
Dr Ho Yi Kai’s presentation focused on the setting up and the work of the Chinese Cultural Centre (CCC) and the locally-established Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC) in Singapore. In particular, Dr Ho discussed how the introduction of the two centres into the island state has raised broader questions surrounding Singaporean Chinese identity in relation to Chinese identity. Dr Ho noted the CCC’s publicity materials – such as the centre’s website, posters and reports – exhibit varying degrees of English-Chinese bilingualism, and he suggested that the centre should clarify their target audience. While the CCC has strived to include several Singaporean members in its decision-making processes and board committees, Dr Ho suggested more could be done to engage with the local non-Chinese to reach out to this demographic group. One of such ways is to develop outreach efforts that go beyond the current focus on Chinese arts to include other aspects of Chinese culture and history. In his analysis of the SCCC, Dr Ho lauded the success of the permanent exhibition at the centre, but he noted that the question of ‘What is a Singaporean Chinese identity’ continues to linger. Moving forward, Dr Ho suggested that the SCCC could consider introducing greater depth in their outreach efforts, as well as cross-sectoral partnerships with academic institutions and events. Dr Ho concluded that rather than seeing the CCC and the SCCC in competition, these centres exist in complementation, for they are significant in catalysing critical questions about xinyimin and Chinese identity in Singapore.
The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of issues which include the influence of China’s soft power on Southeast Asians of Chinese descent, the role of ASEAN centres in the Philippines vis-à-vis Confucius Institutes; the degree of academic freedom at Xiamen University in Malaysia; and the relationship between Confucius Institutes, the Chinese embassy, and Xiamen University in Malaysia.