Since the first Confucius Institute was jointly established in 2005, the Confucius Institutes have been flourished with great care and vigorous promotion of both China and the UK over a span of more than 10 years. At present, there are 30 Confucius Institutes and 164 Confucius Classrooms around the UK, ranking first in Europe. The Confucius Institutes, like “the goose that laid the golden eggs”, has brought multiple benefits to the UK. It helped to invigorate China-UK economic and trade exchanges. It has brought visible returns to the UK, a much anticipated radiation effect.
1. A “catalyst” for China-UK economic and trade cooperation
Back in 2006, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Tsinghua University jointly launched the Confucius Institute for Business London, the first institute for business cooperation.Since then, the University of Leeds and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh followed suit. A number of Confucius Institutes with their own unique features opened in the UK. Other institutes around the country are also growing, serving as a gateway between the two countries, and contributing to bilateral economic and trade exchanges.
Nowadays, the Confucius Institute has expanded to offer various services to include language training, legal service, i Organize business visits, business research among other areas. To some extent, it has helped unroot thorny problems. First of all, it helps both sides to know each other better and thus break the wall of “lack of mutual trust”. Second, it removes the language barrier, overcomes the cultural barrier, which can lead to communication inefficiency. Finally, it helps to solve the problem of “information asymmetry” by serving as a channel to communicate, and meets the supply and demand of both sides.
A growing number of business people in the UK favor the Confucius Institutes, according to the Financial Times. And that partially reflects the need of the local business community as China has become a major trading partner of the UK. In 2019, the Confucius Institute at the University of Sheffield organized an economic and trade delegation to Beijing, Zhengzhou and other places in China. They visited nine local companies in medical equipment, digital creativity, industrial manufacturing, food and beverage and other industries. Pauline Dawes, CEO of SOMI Trailers, joined the delegation and admitted that her company had great interest in the Chinese market for a long time, but had little knowledge or channel of cooperation. Thanks to the tour organized by the Confucius Institute, she found a lot of cooperation opportunities, which provided new and broad markets for future development.
In February 2022, RAND Europe, an affiliate of RAND Corporation, and the University of Cambridge jointly released a policy research report titled “The economic value to the UK of speaking other languages”. The study found that the risks of relying only on English to conduct international trade are increasing as economic globalization has broadened and deepened. Investment in language education is conducive to enhancing international competitiveness and expanding the advantages in international trade. It also predicts that “a full eradication of language barriers with Arabic-, Chinese-, French- and Spanish-speaking countries could increase UK exports annually by about £19 billion.” The China-UK economic and trade relation is maintaining a strong momentum. In 2021, the trade volume of bilateral goods exceeded $110 billion for the first time. China has become the UK’s third largest trading partner and the biggest source of imports. Behind it all, the Confucius Institute deserves credit.
2. A “connector” for the Belt and Road Initiative
Although the UK has not formally joined the Belt and Road Initiative, it has benefited greatly from it and shared in the dividends of cooperation. In this context, the Lancaster University Confucius Institute took the lead in establishing the Belt and Road Initiative Research Consortium. Thereafter, many well-known universities in the UK have conducted researches on the Belt and Road Initiative through Confucius Institutes,, and made pragmatic assessments and exploration of the status quo, opportunities, challenges and prospects of the Belt and Road Initiative. In a timely manner, it has produced a series of valuable and influential results, which effectively refuted the false attacks and speculations made by some Western politicians, scholars and media on “geopolitical conspiracy”, “tributary system” and “cultural threat”.
Therefore, despite some twists and turns in the development of China-UK political relations in recent years, the cooperation around Belt and Road Initiative has not slowed down thanks to the joint efforts of the Confucius Institute and the British academic and business communities. Rather, it is characterized by deepening policy coordination, solid integration and frequent people-to-people and cultural exchanges. First, the UK appointed Sir Douglas Flint as Special Envoy to the Belt and Road Initiative. It also set up an expert council and jointly published the Green Investment Principle for the Belt and Road Initiative. Then, in 2021, the China Express Line, a direct maritime cargo route between Shanghai and Liverpool, was launched. This year, it has been upgraded from the “short-term temporary route” to “long-term fixed route”. Through the line, nearly 70,000 containers have been shipped into the UK, meeting the demand of over 200 local businesses. The non-stop China-Europe freight train to London has sufficient space, stable operation and DDP service. All these have provided strong support for UK’s foreign trade rebalance after Brexit.
It is the Confucius Institute, as an effective “connector”, that has resolved the uncertainties in China-UK relations with its own certainty. Therefore, it has promoted the deepening of Belt and Road Initiative and created opportunities for complementarity, efficiency and mutual benefit.
3. An “accelerator” for local Chinese education
In recent years, the Chinese education market in the UK has been steadily expanding, with both supply and demand booming. It is regarded as a “strategic industry”, creating huge job opportunities and economic value.
According to the British Council, Chinese has become the fourth most spoken foreign language in the UK, only after French, German and Spanish.
Sir Martin Sorrell, the former chief executive of WPP, even believes that “Chinese and [computer] code” as “the only two languages” the next generation would need. Boasting rich teaching experience, excellent teachers and innovative training methods, Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms continue to tap the local Chinese education market. Offering “immersive Chinese education” and highlighting “mother tongue” language learning, Confucius Institutes serve as a model in Chinese education for children. By combining Chinese education with China’s extensive and profound cultural heritage, it enhances the appeal of Chinese language and ignites students’ passion to learn. The Confucius Institute Online, which opened during the COVID-19 pandemic, makes Chinese language education accessible despite obstacles.
With unremitting efforts, the Confucius Institute has yielded fruitful results, injecting vitality into the Chinese language education market in the UK. It is rapidly transforming itself into a high standard, high quality and high profit organization. Local media reported that a craze for Chinese education is in full swing for British families. Learning Chinese is regarded as a good investment with high returns by business people. It is predicted that the private Chinese education market will exceed 1 billion pounds in the next five years, and will more than double. Local think tanks estimate that with the same investment in language learning, if more people learn Chinese, the UK’s GDP will increase by ￡11.5 billion to ￡12.3 billion, higher than the ￡9.1 billion to ￡9.5 billion for learning French and ￡9.1 billion to ￡9.7 billion for learning Spanish.
There is every indication that the flourishing Confucius Institute has brought real benefits to the UK. Therefore, it has become the epitome of the “golden age” of China-UK relations. These days, the UK economy is facing an unprecedented challenge. A report from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) released in September predicts that the UK economy will fall into recession by the end of 2022. The inflation will soar to 14% and the economy may remain weak until 2024. Some people in the UK should abandon their narrow-minded views and stop the unprovoked attacks on the Confucius Institute at this critical juncture. Instead, they should focus on the economy and people’s livelihood, make good use of China’s huge market to resolve difficulties and pursue win-win cooperation rather than confrontation and conflict.