This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the UK at the ambassadorial level, seeing China-UK relations go through both thick and thin. Within this time, the two countries have achieved fruitful results, which have brought tangible benefits to the people of both nations as well as making significant contributions to world peace and prosperity. The development of China-UK relations has withstood a variety of challenges, during which Confucius Institutes (CIs) played a vital role in the correct path for both countries. Since their establishment in the UK in 2005, CIs have become an indispensable platform for public and cultural diplomacy. They assist in the struggle to promote mutual understanding, build up mutual trust, promote bilateral exchanges and facilitate the engagement of diverse partnerships. In addition, CIs have also played an irreplaceable and vital role in maintaining and boosting China-UK relations during challenging times.
“Building A Bridge of Communication”
China and the UK are very different regarding their cultures and values, resulting in a dichotomy that limits non-governmental exchanges. Since its establishment, the CI has become a game-changer to the status quo, serving as an excellent platform for all sectors of UK society to study Chinese. The CI also assists the same individuals to immerse themselves within Chinese culture as well as develop a comprehensive, accurate and unbiased perspective on China through a Chinese worldview. CIs have also helped many Britons learn about China and overcome their initial bias against the nation. Another outcome is that these individuals can improve the UK’s relationship with Chinese people via communication, thus turning them into “hardcore fans” of Chinese culture and “faithful supporters” of a China-UK friendship.
As the European champion of the “Chinese Bridge” (Chinese Proficiency Competition organized by CIs), Cameron Patterson is a British youth who calls himself “Kang Ke” in Chinese. He spoke highly of CIs and their unique role in cross-cultural exchange and praised them as an “ambassador of Chinese culture”. Having spent the last few years as a CI volunteer and an expert on Chinese projects, he has delivered several speeches on.his “special relationship” with CIs in the hopes of piquing the interest of British students to learn the Chinese language and to also act as ambassadors promoting China-UK relations.
Other people have mirrored the experiences of Cameron Patterson. After more than a decade of dedicated endeavours, CIs have planted the seeds of friendship in British hearts, building crucial momentum which improves relations between China and the UK at the official level via bottom-up efforts.
“Building the Foundation for Cooperation”
In recent years, CIs have actively extended their reach and functions, pursuing a diversified development path as well as promoting exchanges between China and the UK in a variety of areas. These have all been achieved whilst teaching the Chinese language, resulting in the continual strengthening of the partnership between both nations.
Since the beginning of 2022, CIs in the UK have organized hundreds of special events encompassing a broad range of formats, informative content and unique characteristics. These have been hailed as “powerful charm offensives” by local media, winning widespread recognition and accolades. For example, in June, the CI at Lancaster University organized an interdisciplinary symposium on the “Belt and Road Initiative”. This event attracted over 40 Chinese and British experts to discuss strategies that promoted China-UK economic and trade exchanges. The exchange yielded many practical achievements. In September, the London Confucius Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine launched an exhibition themed “Traditional Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture and the World”. This event actively promoted and facilitated medical exchanges between China and the UK and the cross-fertilization of traditional Chinese medicine with Western medicine. This was achieved while at the same time introducing the brilliant achievements of traditional Chinese medicine to those in attendance. David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University, attended the event’s opening ceremony. He praised the CI for their outstanding contributions in promoting the development of alternative medicine in the UK. In October, the CI at the University of Nottingham organized the “Autumn Charity Concert”. This event did not only raise funds for the Children’s Brain Tumor Research Center, but also displayed the unique style of Chinese folk music. In promoting the cultural and artistic exchanges and fusion between China and the UK, the guzheng, erhu, flute and dulcimer were used at the event.
The CIs have brokered new partnerships in various areas between China and the UK. They are continually keeping abreast with the times as well as providing strong support for the steady, long-term and deepening relations between both countries.
“Opening the Door of the Soul”
China’s public and cultural diplomacy has always prioritized bridging the ideological gap as well as removing antagonism and misunderstandings towards the country. Like the British Council, the CI is not a “Trojan horse”, but instead, it is a bridge of “cultural understanding” and a messenger intended to forge bonds between people.
Although CIs in the UK have been questioned and attacked by anti-China forces in recent years, they have always stayed true to themselves, persisting through challenges, winning over grassroots communities, expanding service functions, accommodating the interests of all parties and creating its reputation. They have always tried to elevate from the “window of culture” to the “bridge of soul” in all situations. Many Britons, more so the younger generation, have gained first-hand experience of the sincerity and hospitality of the Chinese people, as well as the significance and worth of the “China Miracle”. They have also been able to realize the ignorance and absurdity of the “China Threat Theory” by participating in courses, social activities, exchange programs, etc. Several surveys have revealed three distinctions in the opinion of the British public regarding China. A far larger proportion of young people than older people have a positive view of China, those who have lived and worked in China are more likely to have a favourable impression of the country. China is more popular among those who have participated in the CI’s activities than those who have not, which shows the CI’s core values.
Although Boris Johnson, the former British Prime Minister, was not amicable to China during his tenure, he firmly opposed CIs’ closure. He knew that “the door of soul for communication is easy to close but difficult to reopen”. He was also aware that the more difficult the growth of China-UK relations become in the future, the more important bridges and ties like the CI were.
“Paving the Road to Friendship”
Confucius has always advocated “harmony is what matters”, which perfectly falls in line with China’s diplomatic concept of “peaceful development” and a “harmonious world” in the new era. CIs in the UK defend the concept of “harmony” by using language as a vehicle and culture as a bridge, striving to become a messenger of friendship, paving the road to friendship and constantly setting new milestones in developing China-UK relations.
For more than a decade, the UK has set many “firsts” in relation to the CI. The UK is home to 30 CIs and 164 Confucius Classrooms; the region consists of more than 190,000 registered students. It ranks first in Europe and the UK has the world’s first business CI (the Confucius Institute for Business London was established in 2006). The UK is also home to the world’s first Confucius Institute for TCM (The Confucius Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine was established in 2008) and has the world’s first online CI (the Online Confucius Institute at The Open University was established in 2022), etc. These “firsts” are a testament to the development of the CI’s influence in the UK and an indication of China-UK friendship. An interview was conducted in June of this year that questioned Schofield, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, who had personal experience in the establishment and growth of the Confucius Institute. They said that the CI’s great achievements were not only in Chinese language teaching and cultural diversity but also in boosting the China-UK friendship. He also expressed full confidence in its prospects.
Fifty years ago, pioneers of this initiative saw the benefits of improving China-UK relations. Fifty years later, the world is undergoing major changes not witnessed in a century which also sees China-UK relations standing at new historical crossroads. The direction taken in China-UK relations depends on the major decisions of the high-level officials and the people’s common desire of both nations. With the continued efforts of “Friendship Ambassadors”, including the CI, it is believed that the Chinese and British people will learn from historical experience. As a result, they will inevitably end up finding common ground via mutual understanding, resolving disputes via cooperation and collaborating to promote the sustainable, stable and healthy development of China-UK relations. The outcome will result in opening up a new “Golden Era” between the two countries.