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Li Anshan:A place to learn, a place to realize dreams

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Why do africans go to china to study? The answers are as numerous as the students

During a recent visit to Cairo and Maputo, I heard frequently nihao or xieixie (meaning "how are you" and "thank you" in Chinese) in the street. More surprisingly, when I was giving a speech at the Confucius Institute at Cairo University, students asked me questions in Mandarin that sounded far better than my own Hunan-accented Mandarin.

All of this made me wonder why so many Africans are interested in China and in learning Chinese. I was also intrigued that many of them are now selecting China as their main destination for education. Though government promotions and practical needs in the African countries are the obvious reasons, there is much more to it than that.

China's rapid economic development and robust economy are strong attractions. The Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 showcased China as never before to ordinary Africans. However, it is the growing trade in commodities, television shows, Confucius Institutes, and Chinese people working in Africa that have sparked the growing interest. Chinese companies are building roads, houses, dams and oil refineries. It is cooperating with Nigeria in the field of satellites.

China has been the largest trading partner of Africa for five consecutive years, with a volume of $200 billion in 2013. Hence it is obvious that African students want to come to China to know more about the country.

China's experience of development with modern technologies has also inspired young Africans. A student from the Republic of Congo once told me that after he saw several telecommunications products in the market were "made in China", he decided that he would go to China. With a dream of becoming the minister of telecommunications in his country, the student came to China to study in 2007. He is now a graduate student of telecommunications at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.

I also met various African students who are doing their master's programs, such as Serge Mundele at Beijing University of Science and Technology; or PhD studies, such as Erfiki Hicham, a Moroccan doing international politics at Peking University; or post-doctoral studies, such as Imen Belhadj, a Tunisian who has finished her degree in international politics and is now doing research at Peking University, or Oodo Stephen Ogidi, a Nigerian working as a post-doctoral fellow in electrical engineering at Dalian University of Technology.

Most of these students have come because they want to understand the real China. I can never forget my own student experiences in Toronto several years ago. My Zambian friend once asked "Can China produce cars?" "Yes, of course, China can also produce trains." I answered coolly, and could not help thinking, "How could he be so ignorant of China?"

Things are different now. Young Africans want to see China with their own eyes. They are learning about many aspects of China and are a bridge between China and Africa.

The Chinese government's readiness for educational collaboration has also promoted the trend. The Ministry of Education has designated more than 10 universities as cooperation bases with developing countries. These universities have excelled in different fields, such as computer sciences, technology, telecommunications, vocational education, tropical biology, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Besides the establishment of 31 Confucius Institutes in 26 African countries and the training of African officials, China also provides scholarships for young Africans to study in China.

More channels have opened after local governments, companies, universities and charity organizations have started to provide scholarships to students from developing countries, including African ones.

The hospitality and friendship extended by China will certainly encourage more African student flows. As one Ghanaian student recalled in the US magazine The Atlantic, her daily task was to satisfy the curiosity of her Chinese neighbors by answering strange questions. She was stared at in subways and played a model's role for people to take pictures, hair being touched.

Asked if she found Chinese to be racist, she made a rather profound statement. "Despite always being identified as "black" and "African", I never felt discriminated against or antagonized, but rather treated with warmth and friendliness. Because I spoke Mandarin, I could often understand what people said about me, and they were rarely disparaging or maligning."

There are practical reasons as well. The tuition fees in China are lower, which helps explains why more and more African youth are coming to China for education at their own expense.

I met a Zambian student near where I live. He told me that he came to learn Chinese in a small language school. That surprised me because he looked very young and had come to China alone. He was living in a residential area far away from the city center, and his determination to study Chinese shows that he was far-sighted.

Another reason for African youngsters to study Chinese or study in China is that they hope to find a good job with Chinese companies in Africa, such as Huawei and ZTE.

On my way back from Egypt, I met two young Ethiopians who had came to Shanghai for an aviation course. My Senegalese friend told me that it is much easier to get a visa for China than for other Western countries.

Africans want to know more about the outside world and learn more skills to reshape their economies. China can provide an opportunity for them to realize their dreams.

The author is a professor at the center for African Studies, Peking University.


(China Daily Africa Weekly 04/11/2014 page9)