What you need to know
Thousands of Chinese college graduates, sponsored by the Chinese government, teach Chinese in Thai public schools. But does it help China’s soft power?
Teaching Chinese as a second language is taking off in Thailand, largely due to generous funding from the Chinese government to embed the language in the local curriculum.
Under a state-run program, Beijing is understood to send as many as 2,000 teachers to the Southeast Asian nation each year, more than to any other country.
“Nearly every school in Thailand has Chinese classes now,” a Chinese woman who taught in Thailand told The News Lens. “Not just in urban areas but also rural villages.”
Known to her students by her Thai nickname Luuktan, the teacher was posted for three years at a public junior high school in Loei, an underdeveloped province in northern Thailand. She returned to China three years ago and now works at the Thai consulate in Qingdao, east China.
China and Thailand jointly fund the program, says Luuktan, “but Thailand gives comparatively less, China contributes more.”
The Hanban is the Chinese government agency tasked by the Ministry of Education with promoting the Chinese language abroad. In its latest Annual Development Report, Hanban claimed to have dispatched more than 14,000 teachers across 147 countries in 2016.
While the report did not specify the number of teachers in each country, Luuktan says Southeast Asia receives somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 teachers each year — of which 2,000 are dispatched to Thailand.
Luuktan believes that China does not pressure any country to take in the teachers.
“Countries request how many teachers they would like,” she says, and Thailand happens to be one of the most receptive countries.
In 2015, China was Thailand’s top import origin and second export destination. Considering the extensive commercial links with China, experts say it makes sense for Thailand to develop literacy in Chinese.
Jane Orton is the director of the Chinese Teacher Training Center at the University of Melbourne and has worked with the Hanban to promote Chinese language education in Australia.
“[Like] everywhere in Asia and even beyond, there is an awareness of China's rise as a world power and an understanding that establishing relationships at various levels of Chinese and Thai society will be advantageous,” Orton told The News Lens.
She also believes Australia will benefit from having more Chinese-speakers.
Teaching Chinese and soft power
Since its inception in 2002, the Hanban has been successful in increasing the availability of Chinese language learning outside China. Confucius Institutes, which are one of the Hanban's more high profile projects, have given China a presence in 500 universities around the world.
In 2006, Thailand allowed the Hanban to set up what it called the world’s first Confucius Classroom in Thailand — a collaboration between the Hanban and local school administrators to provide Chinese language teaching in schools.
Today, Thai universities and schools host 15 Confucius Institutes and 20 Confucius Classrooms. The U.S. has 110 Confucius Institutes and 501 Confucius Classrooms and the U.K has 29 Institutes and 148 Classrooms. Similar to the British Council from the United Kingdom or the Goethe-Institut of Germany, Confucius Institutes promote understanding of the Chinese language and culture in schools and universities abroad. In many cases, Chinese funding means universities have access to Chinese language learning they otherwise could not afford.
These Chinese outposts have come under fire for stifling academic freedom in the institutions they serve. Unlike the government-dispatched British Council or Goethe-Institut, Confucius Institutes are based abroad through direct arrangements with local schools and universities. The arrangements, many claim, bind the host institutions to restrictions on their academic freedom, namely on sensitive political issues such as Tibet, Taiwan, human rights and democracy.
In 2014, the American Association for University Professors called on universities to stop hosting Confucius Institutes, claiming in a report that arrangements with the institutes “advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”
Since the report was published, only two of the more than 100 U.S. universities with Confucius Institutes — the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University — have terminated their agreements with the Hanban.
Hanban programs have also led to conflict with local educators in other Anglophone countries, says Orton.
“There has been [...] a feeling that some of the Hanban's methods are not particularly attractive nor even desirable as a way to stimulate motivation and linguistic competence,” she says. In particular, the Hanban’s excessive use of language competitions has been a point of contention because educators in Western school systems do not feel competitions are an effective way of encouraging learning among students.
Australian National University’s latest “China Story Yearbook” described China’s soft power campaign as seeking to end "the global dominance of the English language and ‘Western’ or ‘universal’ values.”
“Especially in Asia, it wants to develop strong relationships with countries that have been close to the U.S. in the past,” says Orton. “These include Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.”
A politically sympathetic nation?
But is China’s entrenchment in the Thai educational system really a soft power victory for Beijing?
English remains the primary second language taught in Thailand, a fact unlikely to change in the near future, says Luuktan. Thailand’s significant tourism sector and the many Western visitors that come for it ensures English will stay dominant.
And unlike English, in which students are tested for fluency, Chinese is taught with less rigor. The curriculum is focused on teaching Chinese culture rather than language. While students may have six to 10 English classes each week, Chinese is only allotted two classes a week in the curriculum.
Moreover, exams Luuktan gave her students were “very simple,” she says. Students were required to select the correct pinyin to a given phrase, complete fill-in-the-blanks, or fix sentence structures.
“In the southern or eastern regions of Thailand where there are more ethnic Chinese, Chinese classes may be more advanced,” says Luuktan. But in other regions, “communities do not value Chinese as much and so only a minority of students gain fluency.”
Academics also say even if Thais are fluent in Chinese this will not necessarily translate into political support for China.
Gerry Groot is a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide and author of the chapter on soft power in “China Story Yearbook."
“While those teaching the language usually hope this translates into political sympathy for the teacher’s home country, we know that this didn’t work for English or Russian,” he tells The News Lens.
While perhaps not yet effective at spreading soft power influence, Chinese classes seem at least successful in fostering understanding of China among Thai youth.
“Students want to learn about what is in China,” says Luuktan. “They do not really care to learn the language, but are more curious about Chinese culture and people.”
Signs of interference
Still, there have been signs of increasing Chinese interference in Thailand or at least a willingness on the part of the junta-led Thai government to comply to China’s wishes.
In October last year, Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) was held incommunicado for hours after landing at Bangkok International Airport. Wong, who had been due to speak at a university in Bangkok, was reportedly stopped from entering the country at the request of Chinese authorities.
“I was afraid I would be the next Gui Minhai (桂敏海) and be kidnapped from Thailand and taken to China,” Wong told The News Lens in an interview in Taipei earlier this year.
Gui, a Swedish citizen, was one of a group of five booksellers from Hong Kong who went missing in 2015. He was abducted in Thailand and reappeared later on Chinese state television. He remains the only group member still in detention in China.
Luckily for Wong, 20, whose leadership during the 2014 student uprising in Hong Kong and ongoing activism has kept him in the spotlight, his detainment in Thailand was promptly made public by a local activist and immediately drew international media attention. After 12 hours waiting by himself, unable to contact a lawyer and unaware what was happening outside his cell, he was on a plane back to Hong Kong.
Editor: Olivia Yang