Belt and read: How China is exporting education and influence to Malaysia and other Asean countries

The South China Morning Post has a lengthy article about how Xiamen University Malaysia, a China-backed university that opened last year, is the model for President Xi Jinping’s vision of exporting education in order to marry Beijing’s trade ambitions with Asia’s eager-to-learn millennials. Note that Xiamen University was also founded in 1921 by Tan Kah Kee, a Chinese business tycoon who made his fortune in Southeast Asia.

China’s Ministry of Education has pledged to set up 10 science and research centres in partnering countries by 2022. They will also sponsor 2,500 Chinese students to study abroad each year in the next three years and finance 10,000 foreign students to come to China each year for five years.

In recent years, a government programme has provided foreign universities with generous cash grants to set up Chinese language and cultural courses. Known as the Confucius Institute, it has expanded to 512 university campuses across 130 countries.

In addition, individual Chinese universities have made attempts to promote mutual understanding. Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, which has joined hands with Thailand’s Rangsit University to set up a business school in Bangkok, has helped build a library offering Chinese-language literature in the Thai capital.

In Vientiane, the Laos branch of Soochow University has served as a base for Chinese scholars wishing to gain hands-on experience with their Southeast Asian neighbour. For now, Soochow University Laos branch enrols only two dozen students each year who will learn Chinese in a rented building before heading to Suzhou (the home city of Soochow University in China) for another three years of study. But when the construction of its campus in Vientiane is completed next year, university officials say they will enrol more students and teach them locally.

Zhang Baohui, a professor of international affairs at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, was quoted as saying:

“Exporting education is a way to promote China’s soft power. [The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’] is not just an economic initiative. It reflects China’s quest for broader influence in the world… Over time China will have a bigger outward push by its universities in countries affected by [the Belt and Road].”

“If the Belt and Road solely depends on China’s economic and financial clout, some countries may have concerns. They fear that China may in the end make them economically dependent. China’s export of education, however, should not trigger similar concerns.”

“The quality of Chinese universities has improved quickly in the last decade. So poorer countries along the Belt and Road should welcome them to establish a presence and train local students. If so, China will prove that the Belt and Road generates win-win outcomes.”

In Malaysia though where British and Australian universities have had an established presence for years, Xiamen University is facing fierce competition. In order to lure in more high-quality students, it granted more than US$1 million in scholarships in 2016 – mostly targeting Malaysian students. The university also has a special grant for Bumiputeras (indigenous Malaysians) and Indians plus has recently expanded the scheme to cover students with high scores from Indonesia.

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