The classrooms inside the Confucius Institute (C.I.) on the campus of the Royal Academy of Cambodia are a model of studiousness. The white walls are freshly painted, brand new chairs and desks are in perfect rows and a shiny wooden lectern stands at the front of the room next to a white board that doubles as a projector screen.
The C.I. is a stark contrast to Cambodia’s public schools, and it costs just $5 a month for students to attend. The vast majority of the institute’s expenses—teacher salaries, textbooks, teaching materials, other operating costs, and even airfare for students who go on to further study in China—are paid for by the Chinese government.
As China’s economic and political clout expands in Cambodia, the C.I. is paralleling that rise with 13 branches and 5,000 students in Phnom Penh and five provinces throughout the country.
Things have been going so well for the institute since it launched here in 2009 that this year’s global C.I. conference, attended by more than 100 representatives from dozens of countries, was held this week in Phnom Penh.
“Because we have opened many branches and attracted students and promoted the school so well compared to other countries—we have seen the most improvement, that is why Cambodia was chosen to hold the conference,” said Chea Munyrith, the director of C.I. in Cambodia.
While the Chinese Communist Party provides no-strings-attached loans to Cambodia’s government, and as Chinese businesses sign multibillion dollar agriculture, mining and infrastructure deals, scores of language teachers trained and employed by Beijing are grooming young Cambodians who will become the diplomatic bridge between the two countries.
“In Cambodia 10 years ago, or even five years ago, Chinese was only seen as a business language, but Chinese language today is for research, for the government and for diplomacy,” Mr. Munyrith said, noting that the cursory $5 monthly fee for students is waived entirely for the children of government officials.
There are four main goals that C.I. hopes to achieve in Cambodia by 2020, Mr. Munyrith said.
C.I. plans to build schools in all 24 provinces to educate 50,000 Cambodian students in Chinese language and culture, launch research institutes at the Royal Academy and in China to further the study of the history of Cambodia-China relations, and set up a scholarship program that will send hundreds of Cambodians each year to study for up to one year in China.
As China’s international influence and investments increase, C.I.s in Cambodia and around the world are a way to expand the use of the Chinese language, and understanding of Chinese culture, according to Mr. Munyrith.
“The benefit [of the C.I.] for the Chinese government is to make more people understand Chinese language. More and more people will understand China and day to day, year to year, the Chinese language will become more important until all the world speaks Chinese,” he said.
However, C.I. has not received such a warm reception everywhere in the world.
The institutes, which are overseen by Hanban, the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, have drawn widespread scrutiny in the West, where C.I. has been setting up Chinese language centers at universities since 2004.
In a 2008 report titled Repackaging Confucius: PRC Public Policy and the Rise of Soft Power, by the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm the C.I. was described as “an image management project, the purpose of which is to promote the greatness of Chinese culture while at the same time counterattacking public opinion which maintains the presence of a ‘China threat’ in the international community.”
In a declassified report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, C.I. is characterized as being a tool for China to support its strategic interests abroad. “China wants the world to have positive feelings toward China and things Chinese,” the report states.
On the third and top floor of the C.I. in Phnom Penh there is a spacious and well air-conditioned room used exclusively to display the various diplomatic and educational events and achievements of C.I. students and staff.
Students are shown doing tai-chi in front of Angkor Wat, holding up finely painted calligraphy and joining their counterparts from around the world in C.I.-sponsored language and culture competitions in China’s Yunan province. Three silver eggs sit on a table, awards that students won at the competition for proficiency in Chinese and skill in Chinese classical dance.
A montage of photos is devoted to the celebration of the 54th anniversary of Cambodian-Chinese diplomacy, which was held at the C.I. at the Royal Academy and attended by deputy Prime Minister Sok An and Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Pan Gangxue.
Unlike some Western countries where the growth of China is raising concerns, Cambodia has a long history of positive relations with China that allows C.I. schools to fit seamlessly into society, said Sok Touch, the director of the doctoral program at the Royal Academy and deputy director of the International Relations Institute of Cambodia.
“Close relations between Cambodia and China has roots in Khmer culture, not just after the C.I. has been here. Khmers post Chinese signs at home. They change from eating nom banh chok [Khmer noodles] to Chinese noodles, from using spoons to using chopsticks,” he said.
And the tendency of entrepreneurial Cambodians to learn Chinese and adapt Chinese customs is also a tradition in the country, Mr. Touch added.
“Chinese and Chinese-Khmer people control more than 70 percent of the economy. Some Khmer people want to be Chinese because of the Chinese influence in the economy,” he said.
Chea Tech Hok, 18, who graduated from the fourth and final level of classes at C.I. last year, said he dreams of one day being Cambodia’s ambassador to China, but until then he is searching for a job with a salary of no less than $1,000.
“Now, Cambodian people do business with China. Most [foreign] business people in Cambodia are Chinese. If students can speak the language and understand the culture, it will get them a good job,” he said.
“When I studied [at C.I.], I understood more about Chinese culture so it’s easier for me to communicate with Chinese people,” he said.
Lim E Chen, 18, who is in her final year of classes at C.I., said that she is not sure what she wants to do with the Chinese language skills she has obtained, but has developed a strong affection for all things Chinese during her time at the school.
“I like Chinese music. I like Chinese dancing. I like to watch Chinese shows on TV when I am at home,” she said.