Five years ago, when Aml Ali Hassanen, then a college graduate from Egypt, told her parents she wanted to further her studies in China, they vehemently rebuffed her idea.
Her parents could not understand why she would want to study in a country so far away from home and whose life is so different from that of Egypt. “They had this belief that life in China will somehow be difficult. They only agreed to let me come after I insisted,” Hassanen, now a first-year PhD candidate at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), told the Global Times.
Five years later, Hassanen has proven to her family that life in China is good, even for an Egyptian Muslim like her. She is now considering inviting her younger sister, who will soon graduate from college, to follow her steps in China and apply for an MBA degree.
African students like Hassanen number nearly 50,000 in China, up from only 2,757 in 2005. Driven by a passion for Chinese culture, prospects for better job opportunities or simply curiosity about life in the Orient, they traveled to China where they would inevitably encounter a disparate culture of vastly different languages, customs and values.
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, China has surpassed the US and UK to become the second-most popular destination for African students studying abroad, after France. From 2005 to 2014, the number of African students in China rose 34 percent annually, according to a report by CUCAS, an online portal for International students applying to Chinese university.
Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that 49,792 African students studied in China in 2015, a 19 percent rise from the year before, making it the fastest growing source continent for international students in China.
At SISU, the number of African students rose from only one (literally) in 2005 to 68 last year. “It’s not too many compared with students from other countries, but we can feel the momentum of growth, and competition for the scholarships among African candidates has also been rising sharply,” Ge Qichao, Deputy Dean of SISU’s College of International Cultural Exchange, told the Global Times.
Medicine, engineering and trade are favorite fields of study among African students in China, according to the CUCAS report. Compared with students from the West, African students have a higher tendency to choose degree programs, rather than only short term exchanges.
Each student has their own personal reasons for coming to China, but one common explanation for the marked increase of African students in China is the Chinese government’s increasing financial support for Africa’s education.
Rise in scholarships
Since the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was held in Beijing in 2000, China has been granting more scholarships to African students through its 48 Confucius Institutes in 33 African countries. Last year, it established a government scholarship, funding 10,000 students from Belt and Road countries to China each year for five consecutive years, which covers many African nations. African students can also apply for grants at the city level.
“There are many different scholarships to choose from. You can apply for all of them and double your chances,” Hassanen said.
It is now also relatively easier to switch majors in China. “I’m in the Chinese department and a lot of my classmates have applied for MBAs. This would not be possible in, say, Europe,” Hassanen said.
Kiulou Ndeuchi Florence, from Cameroon, said China was not yet a mainstream destination when she first arrived to China three years ago. “Most Cameroon students preferred to study in Europe, especially France, because French and English are official languages in Cameroon,” she said.
“China isn’t a conventional choice because they (African students) think learning Chinese is ‘mafan,'” she added, using the Chinese word for “troublesome.”
Out of nearly 50 candidates who applied for a scholarship at the Confucius Institute in Cameroon the year Florence applied, over 40 were given scholarships. “But I heard it’s becoming more competitive now, because more Cameroonian students think it’s a good opportunity to study in China, as China’s development is faster than that of Cameroon,” she said.
For Florence, that scholarship was one of the biggest incentives for her to study in China. “Without a scholarship, my parents would not have let me come here, because foreign students aren’t allowed to do part-time jobs in China, so my family will have to give me full financial support,” she said.
Florence has a sister who is now studying in Europe. For her, a scholarship wouldn’t matter that much because part-time jobs will help finance her studies.
But even with a scholarship, the decision to come to China isn’t always an easy one. “Most Moroccan parents would not want their children to go to a country so far away. In any emergency, they wouldn’t know what to do. But if they are studying in France, the parents can just fly over in two hours,” said Zraidi El Houcine, a Moroccan student who is on an exchange program in China through a scholarship from Confucius Institute at University Hassan in Casablanca, Morocco.
Apart from the scholarships, many African students are choosing China for better job prospects as ties between China and Africa deepen. Florence, for example, is confident that her knowledge of Chinese culture and proficiency in Putonghua will land her a high-paying job in a Chinese company back in Cameroon, where China is now the biggest foreign investor with activities in infrastructure, ore extraction and energy.
“China is more developed; more so than France, economically, I would say. If you’re proficient in Chinese, Chinese companies in Africa will definitely give you a job offer,” she said.
She is echoed by El Houcine, who said Chinese-speakers are in high demand in Morocco after the country exempted Chinese nationals from visa requirements since 2016, largely boosting the number of Chinese tourists to the North African country.
Many students are lured by China’s business opportunities. Justine Emanuel Luvanda and Shafii Hamisi Swed, two students from Tanzania who were studying at the Shanghai Finance University, set up an e-commerce platform with their Chinese classmate while studying here.
They used it to export Chinese brand electronic products, such as mobile phones and tablet computers, as well as custom-made clothing and textiles, to the East African country. For Luvanda and Swed, the idea to trade between countries started way back before they came to China.
“We came to China because we knew China had a strong economy, and there were lots of business opportunities that could link China and Africa,” Luvanda told the Global Times in a previous interview.
Other entrepreneurial but less tech-savvy African students bring back Chinese goods, such as tea, wigs and hair extensions or whatever is cheaper here back home in their luggage when they return. “I heard many African students are becoming buying agents who bring back stuff home periodically,” Hassanen said.
According to a 2016 study by Afrobarometer, a research organization on public attitude in Africa, which polled citizens in 36 African countries, China ranks second as the most popular national development model, after the US. China is also seen as the second-most influential country, after the polled African countries’ former colonial powers.
African students are able to get an up-close look at China’s model of development. For Selycia Curwen, from South Africa, China’s infrastructure is the most striking.
“Chinese people are more motivated to develop infrastructure, improve their lives and get things done. I don’t think many countries have the same amount of motivation. It’s definitely something to work towards,” she said.
This sentiment was echoed by Florence, who is impressed by the speed of construction here. “The construction sites are really impressive. Buildings are completed within months, and the workers seem to work day and night, nonstop,” she said.
But they also agree that some aspects of China’s pattern of growth are hard to replicate in Africa. China’s huge population – a foundation for its rapid development – and their dedicated work culture are just some of its wholly unique characteristics.
El Houcine say he can’t imagine himself working like a Chinese. “What Moroccans do in nine hours, Chinese people do in four. They never seem to take a rest, while Moroccans would go to a cafe after four in the afternoon,” he laughed.
Source: Global Times