Turkey’s ‘Confucius Institutes’ Subject of Winning Diplomacy Lab Bid

Posted June 1, 2021

Sebnem Ozkan and a team of Georgia Tech students will study the influence and activities of Confucius Institutes in Turkey as part of a Diplomacy Lab bid accepted by the U.S. State Department.

Ozkan, an academic professional in the School of Modern Languages and associate director of the Atlanta Global Studies Center, will investigate the activities and representations of the Institutes in Turkish media, as well as evolving perceptions toward China and the Institutes on Turkish college campuses.

“Our team will study the impact of Turkish media in framing the expanding Sino-Turkish relations on the perception of these Institutes,” Ozkan said. “More specifically, we will look at the coverage of Chinese investment in critical sectors in Turkey and the ‘vaccine diplomacy’ of Sinovac, on the one hand, and China’s policies in Xinjiang against the Turkic Muslim Uyghur community, on the other.”

Confucius Institutes, or CIs, are educational partnerships between Chinese universities and counterparts in other countries to promote Chinese culture and language. The program is sometimes criticized as an instrument of the Chinese government and a threat to academic freedom.

In recent years, many colleges around the world, especially in the United States, have closed or announced plans to close these Institutes. However, the partnerships have grown stronger in recent years in Turkey, where the Institutes offer Chinese language training to army officials.

Ozkan’s team will conduct surveys and focus groups on three Istanbul campuses that each host a Confucius Institute.

“The CIs in Turkey provide an interesting case to study the determining role of national political and economic context and the role of mainstream media on the effectiveness of Chinese soft power beyond the actual educational activities of CIs on campus,” Ozkan said. “We are delighted to be working with the U.S. State Department reps on this project. It is not surprising that this topic is of interest to them given concerns about Chinese influence in the world, as well as the growing tensions in U.S.-Turkey relations.”

Turkey’s search for new partners outside of the Western alliance, including NATO, in recent years, is of concern to the U.S., Ozkan said. Understanding the perceptions of youth, a significant voter group in future elections, also holds the key to understanding the trajectory of Turkey and its place in the international order.

Students on the project will be drawn from the Global Media and Cultures master’s program and the Applied Linguistics and Intercultural Studies programs offered through the School of Modern Languages.

Diplomacy Lab is a public-private partnership between the State Department and select U.S. universities that enables the agency to harness the work of students and faculty to advance research and innovation related to foreign policy. Ozkan’s project is the third affiliated with the School of Modern Languages to be chosen this academic year to undertake research in collaboration with the Department through the Diplomacy Lab program.

In November, the agency chose teams led by two School of Modern Languages faculty members to help solve issues related to language curriculum development for diplomats. In one, David Marcus, lecturer of Arabic, is leading a project related to high-frequency vocabulary in modern standard Arabic. Kyoko Masuda, associate professor of Japanese, is examining the use of function verbs in Japanese.

In April, the State Department chose a team led by Omar Asensio, assistant professor in the School of Public Policy, to investigate ways artificial intelligence can accelerate the transition to green energy.

Previous Ivan Allen College projects include one led by Neha Kumar of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs related to the use of Bitcoin technology in foreign assistance; an examination of multilateral versus bilateral funding and global health, helmed by Alberto Fuentes of the Nunn School; and a project led by Olga Shemyakina in the School of Economics examining “Economic Factors of Violent Extremism.”

The School of Modern Languages is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

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Michael Pearson