China is lavishing scholarships on foreign students and opening up institutions around the world as it looks to exert influence and serve the national interest in a different way.

Alongside its rapid economic development and increasing political impact in the world, China is making significant progress in building up soft power capacities by using education as the key instrument to boost its influence abroad.

The concept of soft power in the field of international relations started to be used by the well-known scholar Joseph Nye. He argues that soft power involves culture, values, and ways to disperse impact and build an image. All this, according to him, aims to facilitate state cooperation, administration and a race to distribute influence, values and ideology to other states.

In recent years, China has significantly increased its influence abroad by using education as a source and instrument of soft power. This has been done by using two main approaches.

Firstly, by establishing Chinese educational institutions in different countries of the world. Second, by offering attractive programmes and support through scholarships for students from around the world to study at Chinese universities.

For this reason, in 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a formal document stating that the purpose of their education reform initiative at international level is to make it possible for Chinese soft power to serve the national interest.

One of the main Chinese educational instruments, which is estimated to have an annual value of around $10 billion, is the establishment and operation of the Confucius Institutes, which operate in around 120 countries around the world through about 500 centres. 

These institutes are established by the state and their main purpose is to familiarise foreigners with the Chinese ideological approach and its culture by offering them various services such as Mandarin language courses or training in cooking Chinese food, calligraphy etc.

However, the impact for China’s soft power has not remained only at the institutional or individual student level, but has also extended to influential politicians. In 2013, after a visit to China, former British prime minister, David Cameron stated that Britain should look beyond traditional principles where students are offered only German and French as a foreign languages and should focus on learning Mandarin.

It does not seem casual that, a few years later, Cameron was engaged to lead an investment fund in UK, worth about $1 billion, which aimed at backing China's Belt and Road Initiative.

On the other hand, China has invested steadily in increasing its universities' capacities in order to compete globally with world-class institutions through two initiatives, known as Project 211 and Project 985. These educational platforms aim to create opportunities for foreign students to study Chinese language and culture and, at the same time, encourage Chinese students to study abroad.

It is estimated that nearly half a million foreign students are studying in China. According to official statistics, in 2017, these students attended 935 higher education institutions. As far as the Asian continent is concerned, China is considered to be the most popular and attractive destination for international students. Most of them come from South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, the US, Russia, and Japan.

To attract as many foreign students as possible, the Chinese government allocates more than 10,000 scholarships to students from countries interested in pursuing studies in China through the Silk Road Scholarship programme. The largest number of these scholarships are dedicated to countries impacted by the Belt Road, making up about 65 percent. But Europe is not left behind in this regard. The Chinese government has recently launched the Chinese Ambassador Scholarship programme dedicated to students from Romania.

In fact, it is considered normal practice and is very common for powerful states, as part of their strategy to extend their impact in the international arena, to apply soft power by launching various scholarship programmes. Around a century ago, the United Kingdom implemented the Rhodes Scholarship programme, which aimed at promoting British imperialist values in the world.

On the other hand, in 1946, the United States launched the Fulbright Program which aims to disseminate American values abroad. Whereas, the former Soviet Union in 1961 created Patrice Lumumba University in order to teach the principles of socialism to students coming from the so-called third world countries.

Similarly, China uses higher education to increase its impact of soft power in the world, especially in countries stretching along the One Belt One Road initiative.

Education for some countries is considered an industry, while for others it is seen more as a political tool. While in developed countries such as the UK, US or Australia, foreign students are welcomed because universities, by offering them study opportunities, charge them with tuition fees that usually are much higher than payments of domestic students, in China foreign students enjoy generous financial support through scholarships and advanced study conditions. For this reason, in 2018, the Chinese Foreign Ministry increased the budget by 16 percent compared to 2017.

This is a well-planned strategic move. As the British weekly The Economist points out, rich countries sell their education and China is using it to buy influence.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to