The Chinese government is offering countries training centers. No, it’s not the now notorious Confucius Institute that Western nations are trying to uproot.

Through the Belt and Road Initiative, developing countries accept Beijing’s Luban Workshop, named after Luban, a famous craftsman in Chinese history. They provide free vocational training centers to nations in the BRI projects. The topic varies, but it may change depending on the requests of the host nations.

According to Voice of America, Dirk van der Kley, a research fellow at the Australian National University, worried that the workshop could eventually make these countries reliant on Chinese technology. 

As more local students receive the training, they will be more familiar with Chinese technology and more inclined to work for Chinese employers.

Western powers have long criticized China’s BRI as debt-trap diplomacy. The agreement promised fancy infrastructure updates that would help boost a nation’s economy. But eventually, they ended up overwhelmed by the vast loan and loose assets to China when they failed to repay. Most prominent are Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which are already in severe debt distress.

According to Kley, the Luban workshop is an effective way to make BRI deals more attractive. The free courses require relatively little funding compared to other programs, making Chinese projects more cost-effective by training local labor. 

Associate professor at the University of Nottingham, Jonathan Sullivan, suggested that the workshop grant Beijing geoeconomic leverage in the developing world. He reminded that Beijing views the region as a crucial facet of its competition with the U.S.

Sullivan recommends Western governments launch comparable projects and conduct a healthy competition. 

Kley from the Australian National University opines that the Luban Workshop seeks to provide China more leeway for political involvement. It may also have the power to influence how China is portrayed in the host nation. 

Voice of America pointed out that the Luban centers are similar to the Confucius Institute in terms of the model. Both offer Chinese training to locals who devote themselves to projects after graduation. 

Yet, internationally, countries have gradually recognized the other purpose of the Confucius Institutes and are trying to eliminate them. British ministers call them a “propaganda vehicle” and vowed to remove all centers earlier this month. The institutes have also been accused of being a conduit for Beijing to harass, intimidate and spy on Chinese students abroad.

It still needs to be clarified if the Luban Workshop may also share this feature. Kley, nonetheless, believes that the workshops are still small in scale and have little ground to become a tool of geoeconomics or soft power. Still, he warned that this might change if they keep growing.

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