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September 10, 2012

African Students See China as a Path to a Prosperous Future By Ryan Brown
Johannesburg In 2011, Gontse Nosi, a South African, was working for an electricity company here when he heard about an unusual opportunity—to earn a master's degree in China, paid for by the Chinese government. He applied and was accepted to a program at the Beijing University of Technology to study renewable energy. There was just one problem. The program was taught entirely in Mandarin, and Mr. Nosi didn't speak a word of it. So for the first year of his studies, the Chinese government arranged for him to live in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where he attended intensive language classes for 10 hours a day. And although that may seem like a winding path to a degree that Mr. Nosi could have earned at home, the added investment, he says, was worth it. "There are Chinese businesses in South Africa now, and South African businesses in China," he says. "Studying there will really open doors for me when I want to find a job." Mr. Nosi is part of a growing cadre of African students whose pursuit of an internationally recognized university degree has taken them not to Europe or the United States but to China. The country hopes to become a major destination for international students, with some 293,000 currently enrolled in its universities—more than 20,000 of them from Africa. The figures are small but rising rapidly: As late as 2006, African students made up only 2 percent of foreign students in China. And nearly one-third of the scholarships given by the Chinese government to foreign students now go to Africans. American colleges, by contrast, have failed to raise their enrollments from Africa, which have hovered around 36,000 since 2006, or about 5 percent of the total international-student population.

African students are being lured to China by a free education or low tuition (around $4,500 per year), the hope of a job with one of the Chinese corporations scattered across Africa, or simply an escape from overcrowded domestic universities. Whatever their motives, African students also hold a symbolic importance for leaders both on the continent and in China itself. Over the past decade, China has risen to become Africa's single largest trading partner, and its stake in the continent is mushrooming. From 2003 to 2011, China's direct investment in Africa rose from $100-million to $12-billion. Like Chinese-built superhighways in Kenya or Chinese corporations mining diamonds in Zambia, drawing African students to China offers a way for the country to shore up its diplomatic and financial relationship with the continent. And Chinese educational investment—whether in the form of drawing African students to China, the building of Chinese-language institutes across the continent, or Chinese aid to African universities —has a special potency on a continent scarred by European colonialism. It offers a new channel of international educational opportunity for African students, one that sidesteps the West altogether. "Not just the universities but the country of China itself is a learning experience for students from my country," says Yilak Elu, an Ethiopian who completed a master's degree in international development at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "We go there to see how a country can develop itself quickly."
A Complicated History

Although Africans have flocked to Chinese universities in significant numbers only in the past decade, the history of diplomatic relations between Beijing and the continent is littered with attempts to recruit African students. In the 1960s, the Chinese government began to sponsor a small cadre of international students from new postcolonial states to foster solidarity in the so-called third world. Flush with revolution and full of newly emerging socialist states, Africa became an obvious target for this new educational exchange, and in 1961 the first group of 118 African students arrived to great fanfare in Beijing. The experience did not end well. Blindsided by racism and isolation, 96 of the original group of

students returned to their home countries by the following year. China's Cultural Revolution also cut short those first feeble exchange programs, but when the government reinstated its scholarships for African students, in the 1970s, they began to return. In the decades that followed, African students continued to filter into China, drawn by the undeniable lure of a free education. The pace quickened in the mid-2000s, when the newly founded Forum on China-Africa Cooperation began to endorse the expansion of Chinese government scholarships for African students as part of its bid to improve diplomacy with the African continent. From 2000 to 2007, 12,000 African students received government scholarships to study in China. In 2009 alone, more than 4,000 African students won Chinese funds for their degrees. And as they arrived in the country, paying students began to follow. Many paying students come not because they are particularly drawn to China, but because they have struggled to find institutions to meet their needs in their home countries. And they often steer clear of Western universities because they are wary of the cost and the maze of immigration bureaucracy that awaits them there. "Whatever you pay, a degree is a degree," says Rowena Ungen, a South African student who earned her medical degree from Shandong University. "People see that, and that's why they don't want to go to England anymore." And visas for most African students are far easier to come by in China than in Europe, creating an added draw. "You can see how closed the doors to education in the West have become to many African students," says Heidi Haugen, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of sociology and human geography at the University of Oslo who studies Africans living in China. "They can't get a visa to Europe, so they go to China instead."
A Lucrative Business

Despite the comparative ease of getting permission to study in China, the daunting process of applying to a Chinese university is still a major hurdle to many applicants. That's where companies like World Universities Creating Opportunities come in. Tucked into the back room of a feng-shui business in a neat suburb of Johannesburg, WUCO is a new kind of player in the China-Africa education scene. Founded in 2011, the company helps South African students gain

acceptance to Chinese universities, shepherding them through the process of getting admitted, applying for visas, booking plane tickets, and settling into their dormitories in China. "Until we can do something enormous to expand our universities here, there's going to be a big demand to go abroad," says Di Visser, assistant to the company's director. "Many of our students can't afford America or Europe, and they're seeing that the education you can get in China is really top class." WUCO sent eight students to China last year, all of them would-be doctors who didn't win admission to one of South Africa's own medical schools, which accept only 1,200 students each year and rely on strict racial quotas to fill their courses. Those students, says Ms. Visser, are attractive to the Chinese government. "They're hardworking, and they abide by the rules," she says. "In China you don't get involved in politics or take drugs—you don't push the boundaries. You just blend in and study and get your degree." Educational networks, from organized companies like WUCO to informal groups of students already in China helping friends back home with their applications, have a big role to play in expanding the number of African students in China, Ms. Haugen says, because many Chinese universities still lack the resources and know-how to aid foreign students. "It's part of the commercialization of emigration from Africa more generally," she says. "It's very hard to go abroad if you don't have resources and contacts, so those who do can easily turn it into a business." A large portion of the African students who come to China, however, still rely on the old standby of Chinese educational exchange: the government-sponsored scholarship. This year the Chinese government estimated that it would bring 5,500 African students to China with all expenses paid. And in July, at the most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation meeting, Hu Jintao, China's president, pledged an additional 18,000 governmental scholarships for Africans in coming years. The Chinese Embassy in South Africa refused repeated requests for comment on its scholarship program. But Ruth Roberts, deputy director of international relations at

South Africa's Department of Higher Education and Training, who helps manage the selection process for Chinese-government scholarships in her country, says that the Chinese goal is to create a layer of African society that has direct experience of China. Those people, she says, will carry forward their experiences into their careers. "China has historically always tried to have a strong relationship with Africa," she says. "These scholarships give China a way to have African students experience their country and then spread knowledge of the place when they return home." Scholarships also dovetail with another international-education program sponsored by the Chinese government, Confucius Institutes. There are now 16 of those language- and cultural-training centers in Africa, helping prepare a younger generation of students to engage with China.
Career Connections

Mr. Elu, of Ethiopia, is a prime example of the type of African student the Chinese hope to attract. Before he went to China for his master's degree, he was working for a Chinese construction firm in the city of Addis Ababa. There, he says, his Chinese colleagues repeatedly talked up the value of a Chinese education. And Mr. Elu didn't have to look far on the streets of Addis—to the new Chinesebuilt African Union headquarters, for instance, or the gleaming Tirunesh-Beijing Ethio-China Friendship Hospital—to see that experience with Chinese language and culture could be a major boon to his career. "The Ethiopian government is wanting to follow the experience of China in developing," he says, so when he returned to Ethiopia, it was "very easy" to land his current job as an adviser to the ministries of transportation and urban development and construction. The rigor of selection processes for scholarships like Mr. Elu's vary. But however a student ends up with the scholarship, its demands are exacting. Undergraduate students awarded government scholarships, for instance, are required to complete their degree in Mandarin. For nearly all of them, that means the first year of study is spent completing an intensive language program to prepare them for enrollment in their degree program. When Mr. Nosi, of South Africa, arrived in China, he learned that

his Mandarin classes would stretch from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, with hours of homework to follow. Professors, he says, demanded rote memorization and had no patience for students who missed classes or didn't turn in assignments. "You're going to sleep at 1 a.m. and then getting up at 7 every day," he says. "But that's how it is for Chinese students as well, and they just expect the same of us." Studying in China involved another adjustment: a constant, unrelenting inability to blend in. Outside of major cities and university towns, Mr. Nosi and others say, they frequently encountered Chinese who had never seen a black person before. "Kids especially would come up to me when I was walking and touch my hair and skin," says Thandi Phiri, a Zambian student who studied development at Tsinghua University, in Beijing. For Ms. Phiri, learning to represent and explain her culture proved to be one of the most powerful experiences she had in China. After graduation, she moved to Gaborone, Botswana, where she founded a yearly expo promoting local entrepreneurship and cultural pride. "Being in China and answering so many questions about your culture really makes you introspective about it," she says. "When I came home I wanted to continue developing that sense of cultural pride I felt in China." For other students, the benefits of studying in China are even more obvious. When Isac John, a Tanzanian student who completed his pharmacology degree at Shandong University in 2010, returned home, he took a job as a pharmacist at one of the country's many Chinese hospitals. The doctors he worked with were all Chinese, he says, and he was using his fluent Mandarin daily. "When I first started studying about medicines and science in Chinese, I thought I would give up because it was so difficult," he says. "But now in Tanzania, when I'm speaking to Chinese people, if you close your eyes you won't know which one is me."
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