Identity Negotiation and Perceptual Change: Examining the Confucius Institute’s Effects on Perceptions of China




Du, Yuxiang

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Public diplomacy is a field studied by both strategic communication and international relations scholars. With more than 500 Institutes established in 134 countries, the Confucius Institute project (CI) has become one of the largest public diplomacy efforts in recent history. Unlike past literature mainly focused on the international relations aspect of this project, this study proposed an identity-centered framework based on a discussion of attitude congruency and cultural cognition to understand the communication aspects of the CI project. The framework identifies factors which motivated people to interpret an incompatible message in a way that would not threaten their cultural identities. This research compared in-depth interviews with CI participants to interviews with other students (non-CI students) to explore how interpersonal relationships affect people’s perception of China. Results from this research show that CIs’ perceptions of China were different from those of other students in nature, strength, and complexity. Most aspects of the proposed framework were supported such as identity protection and affirmation. The facilitative functions of positive affect, cognitive dissonance, and maintaining autonomous face in the process of identity incorporation were identified as possible incentives which motivate people to make efforts in fitting incompatible message into their worldviews and identities. The analysis also identified two additional factors, the complexity or sophistication of participants’ perceptions and their attitudinal strength, which may provide necessary conditions for identity incorporation. Successful identity incorporation reduces the negative impact of the message on one’s previously held perception. The typical outcome for CIs is an unchanged perception of China despite negative information consumption about the country. This study may contribute to the field of public diplomacy by showing how people’s perceptions are affected by identity negotiation processes when reacting to incompatible information. Limitations of this study and thoughts on future research are described.



Communication, Education, International relations, China, Confucius Institute, Cultural cognition, Identity, Perception, Public diplomacy