Why China Wants Young Africans To Study At Chinese Universities

Avatar
Written by Istvon Tarrosy

Cameroonian student Danielle Carole Tangmeu Kenmoe is fluent in Mandarin — something that looks really good on a resume.

A student at Zheijiang Normal University, Kenmoe says a degree from China gives an African a competitive edge when it comes to jobs.

“Translators…are needed to help different actors both in China and African countries make their business deals in a smooth and professional way,” Kenmoe said in an AFKInsider interview.

China’s pragmatic foreign policy towards Africa includes an important soft power element: encouraging young Africans to study at Chinese universities.

This is done via a growing number of government scholarships, which are available to foster studies in Mandarin-taught programs, including the opportunity to master the language in a relatively short period.

At the same time, however, Chinese universities have been extending their portfolios of degree programs delivered in English.

Since the launch of the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000, there has been a clear government effort to attract more African students to China.

China increased government scholarships from 2,000 awards in 2006 to 4,000 in 2009 and 6,000 in 2015, according to Kenneth King, professor emeritus of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

China also upped its commitment for short-term training of African professionals from 10,000 to 30,000 between 2006 and 2015, according to King’s 2013 book, “China’s Aid & Soft Power in Africa.”

China has been giving government scholarships to Africans since the 1950s. The first students from Egypt were granted government scholarships in 1956.

But self-supported young Africans who study at Chinese universities outnumber the scholarship- or award-holders.

“China is evidently an attractive destination for international study for Africans, quite apart from its scholarship provision,” according to King.

Dozens of Africans study at Hangzhou Normal University located in one of the historic regions of Mainland China.

Chinese degrees are well recognized across the African continent, medical graduate students from Somaliland said in a focus group meeting in early September.

“China offers a good ground for getting the knowledge, gaining the necessary experience to find more opportunities after graduation,” said Abditafah M. Nuh in an AFKInsider interview. “I want to return home and contribute to the development of my country. I am particularly interested in working in the social relief field for an international NGO.”

Most of the almost 130 African students at the Shanghai Institute of Technology study civil engineering or architecture. In their first year they have to master Chinese and pass the Chinese Proficiency Test level IV, so that they can converse in Chinese on a wide range of topics and communicate fluently with native Chinese speakers.

Some students from Cameroon, Madagascar, Niger and the Comoros told AFKInsider they were encouraged to study in China by parents or family members who had studied or worked there, or who maintain business ties with Chinese.

But racial issues remain a daily reality in interactions between young Africans and the local Chinese populations. This includes skin color.

“Although interaction is possible, in particular if you speak Mandarin, we have experienced a number of challenges because we are black,” Nuh said. “Taxis do not stop if we are alone, but rather when we are with a Chinese friend who is waving to the driver. The less well-educated think that our skin is black because we do not take a bath. They touch it so that they can check if they get painted or not.

“They are ignorant about us, our cultures, and I think education is the key for them, too, to learn more about Africa and the Africans.”

So-called people-to-people interactions are at the heart of Chinese-African linkages, meant to “to increase mutual understanding and friendship between our two peoples and particularly between the younger generations,” said former President

Hu Jintao in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Beijing summit of African leaders.

African students studying at a Chinese university not only learn proper Mandarin, but also get closer to Chinese hearts and minds. This is a significant opportunity for all the parties involved as they can function as bridges for future engagements in trade, business deals and investment.

China is not unique in focusing on this soft power element. Most developed countries and emerging economies behave in the same way, using the same tools in their foreign policies. What makes China different from them is the intensity and concentration, as well as coherent policy coordination, which can result in further gains – hopefully for all parties involved.

Istvan Tarrosy is associate professor of political science and director of the Africa Research Center at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He is Fulbright alumnus (2013-2014) at the Center for African Studies, University of Florida. He is co-editor of “The African State in a Changing Global Context, Breakdowns and Transformations” (Berlin, 2010) and editor of “Afrika Tanulmanyok,” the Hungarian journal of African Studies.