How Perilous are Paper Fans? Public Diplomacy through Confucius Classrooms and Implications for Chinese Influence

Naima Green-Riley, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Princeton University
Encina Hall West, Room 400

Political concerns over Chinese ideological influence in the United States have focused heavily on the threats posed by U.S.-based Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. At the apex of its presence in the United States, the Confucius network reached over 100 Institutes and several hundred K-12 classrooms offering Chinese government-funded language learning across the country. This article investigates the aims and effects of Chinese Confucius programming as part of China’s larger public diplomacy strategy. It argues that states engage in public diplomacy in order to impact the attitudes and behaviors of citizens in other nations. But does public diplomacy work? The article relies on a year-long field study following a group of U.S. high schoolers at two schools with Chinese Confucius Classrooms. It draws upon three waves of a longitudinal survey, interviews and focus groups, as well as classroom observations at the schools. The responses of students taking part in the Chinese program are compared to those of students who do not take part, and they are also compared to responses from original, simultaneous national surveys fielded by Dynata of teens aged 12-18 and adults in the United States. The study shows that over several months of programming, favorability of student views towards China decreases regardless of whether students are studying Chinese in Confucius Classrooms or not. Throughout the study period, China-relevant knowledge increases among Confucius Classroom students. These students’ ideas about China exhibit a mix of positive and negative judgments, indicating that they have developed complex conceptions of the Chinese state. This article suggests both possibilities and limitations of Chinese transnational public influence via educational programs: while students do not leave classes with more favorable attitudes toward China, they do indicate greater overall percipience.


I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

My book project — based on my doctoral research at Harvard University — focuses on U.S. and Chinese public diplomacy, comparing these two models of foreign audience engagement. In it, I offer a theory about the individual-level psychological and behavioral effects of public diplomacy. My original framework goes beyond framings of public diplomacy that consider it simply a means to boost a state's soft power, and shows that it can also be used to influence perceptions of other states, shape ideas about domestic policies, and impact certain political behaviors. Furthermore, I demonstrate that public diplomacy can sometimes work against a state and undermine its foreign policy goals.

I specialize in U.S. and Chinese foreign policy, with a focus on public diplomacy and the global information space. My writing has been published or is forthcoming in Security Studies, the Journal of Experimental Political Science (JEPS), and in the 2022 book, The China Questions II (Harvard University Press). It has also appeared in various public-facing outlets, including The Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post, the Emerging Voices on the New Normal in Asia Series of the National Bureau of Asian Research, The Diplomat, and The Root.