IN A RESTAURANT in the backstreets of Beijing, 12 Pakistanis and Afghans studying at the China University of Communications tell stories of their arrival in China. No one came to pick them up; none of them spoke a word of Chinese. They have plenty of tales of getting lost, disoriented and ripped off by taxi drivers.
The students, all but two of them ethnic Pushtuns, roar with laughter as they swap yarns and savour the cuisine from Xinjiang, a Chinese region that borders on their home countries and has cultural bonds with them. Any ill feeling about those early days has long since dissipated. They agree that, apart from some taxi drivers, the Chinese are very helpful. Friendly relations between their countries and China mean they are welcomed as brothers. Most important, they are all on full scholarships—free tuition, free accommodation and a stipend of 3,000 yuan ($441) a month, more than three times Pakistan’s GDP per person. Beijing’s many Xinjiang restaurants serving halal food are a big plus.
There are nearly half a million foreign students in China, about 50% of whom are on degree programmes. South Koreans are the most numerous. They often come to China if they cannot get into good universities at home—unlike Americans, who come out of cultural and political curiosity, and because it looks good on their CVs. But the share of students from the developing world is growing fast, especially from the dozens of countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan that have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure-building project. Overall numbers of foreign students grew fourfold in 2004-16; student numbers from BRI-related countries expanded eightfold. In 2012, the year before BRI was launched, students from those countries on Chinese government scholarships were less than 53% of the total number of recipients. By 2016 they made up 61%. China says it reserves 10,000 of its scholarships every year for students from BRI countries. Local governments have been piling in with their own “Silk Road scholarship” schemes.
In countries such as Britain, Australia and America, foreign students are welcomed mostly because universities can make more money out of them than out of locals. In China it is the opposite. Foreign students enjoy big subsidies. Often they are more generously treated than local students. Last year the Ministry of Education budgeted 3.3bn yuan for them, 16% more than in 2017. The rich world is selling education. China is using it to buy influence.
The cheerful Pushtuns are one manifestation of China’s strategy. Another are the more than 500 Confucius Institutes which the government has set up on campuses around the world. Offering heavily subsidised classes in Mandarin, the institutes have aroused suspicions in the West that China may be using them to exert political influence. Such worries have prompted several universities in Europe and America to close them. There has been far less resistance to China’s stepped-up efforts to bring students to its own territory and, it hopes, to influence them there.
It is a familiar path among aspiring superpowers. Just as Cecil Rhodes endowed the Rhodes Scholarships a century ago to preach British imperial virtues, America set up the Fulbright programme in 1946 to spread American values and the Soviet Union created Patrice Lumumba University in 1961 to teach socialism to students from third-world countries, so China is using higher education for political ends. One of its aims is to strengthen ties with BRI countries. Global Times, a state tabloid, paraphrased a former Chinese envoy to Iran (a BRI participant) as saying that studying in China would help people to understand China’s political system and avoid “ignorant Western bias” against the country.
For many of the foreign students, a cheap degree is the main attraction. Several of the Pakistanis tried, but failed, to get European, North American and Australian scholarships; getting a degree at home would be much costlier than the one the Chinese are offering. And the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a huge BRI-related project in Pakistan, means that jobs are plentiful there for those with Mandarin. Bilal, one of the Pushtun students, says that when he was returning to China from a visit home, he was offered two jobs while waiting at Karachi airport.
For many of the students, language is a problem. Some universities have created English-medium courses—Richard Coward of China Admissions, a firm that helps students find university places, knows of 2,000 such programmes—but many students have to use Chinese and few speak it well. That is difficult for teachers. “The government and the universities don’t want the foreigners to fail, but as the number has increased, the quality has fallen,” says Shuiyun Liu of Beijing Normal University. There is some grumbling among young Chinese about the ease with which, in spite of this, foreigners walk into good universities and about the superior facilities they are sometimes offered.
Foreign students have reservations, too, says Ms Liu, who has researched foreigners’ satisfaction with teaching in China. “The rules are all hidden here,” she says. And the relationship between teacher and pupils is different. “There’s not much critical thinking. Students are not always encouraged to challenge the teachers.” Learning in China can be an endurance test. Lectures commonly go on for three or four hours, with only a ten-minute break. “This morning I fell asleep after three hours,” says one of the Pakistani students.
That said, students from developing countries tend to be more enthusiastic than students from the West. “The culture is amazing,” says Ugochukwu Izundu, a Nigerian who did a master’s degree in data analysis at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in the eastern city of Suzhou. “I believe China is a force for good in the world,” says Goodwill Mataranyika, a Zimbabwean at Shijiazhuang Tiedao University in Hebei, a northern province. “The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic corridor for mutual benefit, and China is also investing in Africa for a shared win-win benefit for all nations.” (Nigeria and Zimbabwe are signatories to BRI.)
For all such talk, personal relations between the foreigners and their Chinese fellow-students often remain distant. The Pakistanis and Afghans speak warmly of the friends they have made from other countries, but they do not have any Chinese ones. “I would try to talk to them,” says Bilal, who did his degree in Chinese. “But when we did group assignments, they would make their own groups, and the foreigners would be left to work together. I don’t know what it is. Maybe they’re shy.” Still, Bilal has no complaints. He has married a Brazilian he met in China and now works in the Pakistani embassy in Beijing. “I got a scholarship, a language, a job and a wife. God smiled on me.”