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

Yuxiang Du

Advisor: Katherine E Rowan, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Xiaoquan Zhao, Carl Botan

Johnson Center, Meeting Room A
April 26, 2016, 12:30 PM to 10:00 AM


Public diplomacy is a field studied by both strategic communication and international relations scholars. With more than 470 institutes established in 126 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 these institutes, 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 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 function 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 of 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.