In February 2016, Dariga Nazerbayeva, the then-deputy prime minister of Kazakhstan, declared that Kazakh children should learn Chinese in addition to Kazakh, Russian and English. She further claimed, “China is our friend, our trading partner and the biggest investor in the economy of our country… in the near future, we will all need to know Chinese.”  Her statement not only emphasized the economic relationship between China and Kazakhstan, but also appealed to the promotion of stronger cultural bonds between the two countries—namely, through the medium of language learning.
Modern Sino-Kazakh relations are primarily based on the two countries’ strong trade ties with one another. China, as a rising global power, needs to secure substantial natural resource reserves to fuel its ever-growing consumption needs. Given that Kazakhstan is a geographic neighbor with vast amounts of oil, gas, and other extractive resources, China considers it as an enticing candidate for supplying its energy demands. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, recognizes the capacity of Chinese investment to bolster its economic growth, as well as to fund new infrastructure and industries.
The economic partnership between the two countries took on an additional level of significance after China launched the New Silk Road Economic Belt (part of the Belt and Road Initiative) in 2013. Chinese policymakers viewed Kazakhstan as an integral component of carrying out this infrastructural investment project due to its natural resources and its geographic positioning as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Therefore, they sought out Kazakhstan’s full commitment towards supporting the enterprise.
Despite the massive economic gains promised by the New Silk Road Economic Belt, Kazakh society at large held reservations about becoming too closely linked to China. Many groups in Kazakhstan feared that China intended to exploit Kazakhstan’s resources and reap the benefits for itself. Allegations of the Chinese government’s mistreatment towards the Uyghurs, an ethnic group that shares Turkic Muslim roots with Kazakhs, raised negative perceptions of China in Kazakhstan. These factors, coupled with fears that an overdependence on China could grant Beijing the opportunity to impede on Kazakh sovereignty, contributed to a general atmosphere of wariness towards cozying up too closely to China.
The climate of opinion in Kazakhstan signaled to China that the economic and material dimensions of the Sino-Kazakh relationship were not enough to buy Kazakhstan’s loyalty. Officials in Beijing realized that in order to ensure Kazakhstan’s support for the New Silk Road Economic Belt, China needed to present itself as an ally that would collaborate with Kazakhstan to achieve mutual interests. From Beijing’s perspective, China needed to “win the hearts and minds” of the Kazakh people, and thus the government commenced an ongoing soft power campaign to fulfill that mission. A core component of the Chinese soft power campaign in Kazakhstan have been the Confucius Institutes, organizations that offer Mandarin Chinese language courses. Although the Confucius Institutes have helped boost Mandarin Chinese language study throughout Kazakhstan, increased enrollment rates at these centers do not mean they have reshaped perceptions of China in Kazakh society. In spite of China’s attempt to utilize Confucius Institutes to promote Mandarin Chinese language learning and increase China’s cultural appeal in Kazakhstan, the success of the organizations has been limited. The Confucius Institutes’ effectiveness has been hindered by Kazakh students’ general lack of interest in comprehensive culture and language classes, suspicion stemming from the Chinese government’s direct control over the Confucius Institutes, and damage to China’s reputation following the mass detainment of its Uyghur population into “re-education camps.”
Soft Power Initiatives in China: The Role of the Confucius Institutes
The prominent American political scientist Joseph Nye defined soft power as a country’s ability to influence other countries to “do it what wants” because they admire and legitimize the image and values of the soft power holder.  Nye claimed that soft power was generated from intangible factors, including culture, ideology, and institutions. He believed that soft power creation was a bottom-up process and stated that the involvement of civil society and non-governmental institutions, rather than the state, made soft power effective. In turn, high levels of soft power allowed countries to build alliances with other countries and secure their objectives on the world stage. Given how China is increasingly pursuing its great power ambitions via the New Silk Road Economic Belt/ Belt and Road Initiative, it has recognized the critical role that soft power can play in achieving its goals. Chinese officials have therefore attempted to portray the rise of China as a peaceful one that will seek out harmonious and cooperative ties with other countries.
One of the main tools that China has used to spread its soft power are the Confucius Institutes (CIs), which are educational organizations that offer Chinese language-learning programs to students from all over the world. The Chinese Ministry of Education founded the CIs in 2004 to “provide Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide… and contribute to the development of multiculturalism and the building of a harmonious world.”  CIs are established when they partner up with universities in host countries and provide Mandarin Chinese language classes, exchange programs, and cultural activities. Since the foundation of the first CI in 2004, the number has climbed to approximately 540 CIs throughout 161 countries as of 2020. Given the sheer scale and scope of the CIs’ activities, they serve as China’s most prominent resource in promoting its soft power agenda.
- Al-Farabi National Kazakh University (Almaty)
- K. Zhubanov Aktobe Regional State University (Aktobe)
- Karaganda State Technical University (Karaganda)
- Kazakh Ablai Khan University of International Relations and World Languages (Almaty) 
Nur-Sultan is the capital of Kazakhstan, while Almaty is the country’s most populous city; thus, the choice to establish CIs in these cities is not surprising. Aktobe and Karaganda house large oil and coal reserves, respectively, and several Chinese businesses operate in those cities. The Kazakh students who study at these universities have more direct business incentives to study Mandarin Chinese, as the companies frequently hire graduates with strong language skills. In statistical terms, the CIs have expanded Mandarin Chinese language study within Kazakhstan. As of 2020, an estimated 14,000 Kazakh students are studying Mandarin Chinese at the country’s five Confucius Institutes, while 12,000 Kazakh students study in China every year. That being said, quantity does not always translate into quality, as evaluative assessments of the CIs suggest they have not been very successful in altering China’s image in Kazakhstan.
The Effectiveness of the Confucius Institutes in Kazakhstan
Evidence suggests that the CIs have been relatively ineffective in terms of reshaping popular perceptions of China in Kazakhstan. Firstly, most Kazakh students study Mandarin Chinese to obtain a practical skill for their future career interests, as opposed to cultivating a genuine interest in China. Gaukhar Nursha, a researcher affiliated with Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, conducted a survey across all of the CIs in Kazakhstan to assess why students decided to take part in these programs. According to her data, enrollment in non-language CI courses was low, which suggested that most students were not very interested in learning about Chinese culture and history. As for language classes, many students tended to drop out after a few weeks of classes or after they receive certain certifications for their language levels. Given that the majority of Kazakh students with Mandarin language skills end up working for companies in Kazakhstan, they do not see the urgency of gaining in-depth cultural knowledge of China. Nursha’s study demonstrates that language study does not necessarily correlate with an interest in culture.
Secondly, Beijing’s direct involvement in the institutes limits their efficacy as a soft power tool. The CIs have faced criticism for their alleged state censorship, as they tend to paint an idealized portrait of China while limiting discussions on political issues. Furthermore, Beijing has constrained non-government affiliated efforts to promote Chinese language and culture to foreign audiences. These actions go against Nye’s theory of soft power acquisition, as he argues that civil society and non-state institutions—rather than the government—play an instrumental role in bolstering soft power.  Non-state soft power initiatives appear more open and genuine in their motivations, whereas state-dominated soft-power efforts can risk coming across as overly politicized propaganda. The role that the Chinese government plays in the operation of the CIs undermines the organization’s sincerity and instead portrays it as a Trojan horse of Beijing’s political agenda.
Lastly, China’s image as a “peaceful” power contradicts its actual behavior, especially with regard to Beijing’s recent policies towards the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. In 2017, China began a mass campaign that has placed over one million Uyghurs in detention camps. Beijing has stated that the facilities are actually “re-education camps” that have dissuaded Uyghurs from joining radical Islamist groups and have provided them with vocational skills. However, former detainees have claimed that the camps are prison-like environments where Uyghurs are coerced into giving up their cultural identities and adopt to hegemonic Han Chinese cultural expectations. Ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang have also been targeted in this campaign. The Xinjiang detainment camps issue have sparked a series of anti-Chinese protests throughout Kazakhstan, and this blow to China’s image may discourage future Kazakh students from studying Mandarin Chinese at the CIs. In short, despite the rising popularity of studying Mandarin Chinese in Kazakhstan, the CIs have not influenced Kazakh students to view China in a more positive light: in other words, they have won over the “minds”, but not the “hearts”, of people in Kazakhstan.
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