Soft power: Communist China’s linguistic expansion sweeps the Middle East

Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi, endorsed a law last month that adds Chinese to the list of foreign languages that can be taught in Iranian middle and high schools.

This move comes at a time when there is great sensitivity about teaching Western languages in Iran. English is especially stigmatized as a conduit for the West’s “cultural invasion.” After Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei criticized the teaching of English in 2016, Iran imposed a ban on teaching English at primary schools. The endorsement of the Chinese language as an alternative builds upon that.

Yet the expansion of Mandarin Chinese and its inclusion in school curricula is not limited to Iran. It is occurring all over the Middle East, not as a purely cultural or even economically driven measure. Rather, it is part of a new China-led civilizational, cultural and geopolitical genesis.

Sinification is nothing new. It is a process by which non-Chinese societies or groups are acculturated or assimilated into the language, culture, and social norms of the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China. Yet large-scale Sinicization as an expansionist policy is the modern invention of President Xi Jinping.

Under Xi’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stepped up measures to spread standard Mandarin at home and abroad as an instrument of soft power and political influence. Driven by Chinese nationalism, the Xi regime is seeking to assimilate and Sinicize ethnic minorities within China by actively seeking to eradicate the language and culture of Turkic Uyghurs in East Turkestan, Mongol residents of Inner Mongolia, and Tibetans. This is part of a broader plan to consolidate power that includes the complete subjugation of Hong Kong, the conquest of Taiwan, and the conversion of the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.

But the PRC’s language imperialism is not limited to China’s current boundaries. Beijing is also Sinifying the Middle East and other parts of the world at an unprecedented pace. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have taken significant steps to incorporate the Chinese language into their educational systems.

In addition to banning English instruction in primary schools and adding Chinese to school curricula, Tehran has also kept in place its longstanding ban on languages of non-Persian ethnic groups in the country. It has prohibited education in Azerbaijani, a language spoken by more than one-third of its population, even intensifying its crackdown. Yet the Iranian regime is not concerned about spreading Mandarin and funding Chinese language courses.

Investment in the Chinese language in Iran has little to do with linguistic or cultural exchange and everything to do with geopolitics. Some high-ranking Iranian clerics go as far as to absurdly claim that relations between China and Iran are based on God’s commandments in the Quran.

The Islamic Republic even supports the Chinese communists’ genocide against Muslims in Xinjiang, arguing that China is serving Islam by suppressing Uyghur Muslim radicals. And the Iranian news outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps even denies that a Uyghur genocide is happening at all — it’s all just American propaganda, intended to weaken China’s territorial integrity, incite ethnic division and slow Chinese economic growth.

Following President Joe Biden’s promise to make Saudi Arabia a pariah, and three years after Mohammed bin Salman’s 2019 Asia tour, the Saudi government has developed a strategic and economic partnership with China. It has elevated the status of Chinese as the country’s third educational language after Arabic and English.

King Saud University has signed an agreement with the Confucius Institute to establish a Chinese language department. The University of Jeddah has made it mandatory for freshmen to study Mandarin irrespective of their major. In December 2021, the number of high schools that teach the Chinese language skyrocketed to over 700 in total. Saudi Arabia’s state-owned media refer to Chinese as the “language of the future.”

Undoubtedly, the Saudi government’s substantial investment in teaching Chinese is rooted in geopolitics, driven by a desire to fulfill its comprehensive Saudi Vision 2030 program. This program is a strategic framework to reduce Saudi dependence on oil and diversify the kingdom’s economic and security partners.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s growing ties with China have generated a keener interest than ever before among Turks in learning the Chinese language and culture. As in other parts of the Middle East, Chinese is growing in popularity in Turkey as a second language.

Confucius Institutes are shaping positive perceptions of China in the Muslim world, operating within Turkey at Yeditepe University, one of Istanbul’s leading private universities.

China has even managed to cultivate a pro-Chinese Communist Party base in Turkey. Maoist Patriotic Party leader Doğu Perinçek has earned the title of “Jinping Perinçek” for his outright support for the PRC’s expansionist policies on the South China Sea and his denial of CCP’s Turkic Uighur genocide, which he calls a hoax put on by the CIA.

This is a trend the the U.S. cannot afford to overlook.