Rewina Berhe, from Ethiopia, is studying business in Beijing. Wang Zhuangfei / For China Daily
Antoine Lokongo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has spent the last five years pursuing his PhD at Peking University. Provided to China Daily
China becomes new flag-bearer of education for young African talent
A new wave of Africans returning home after studying in China is bringing with them the skills and know-how to help fuel the continent's most important partnership of the modern era.
When Rewina Berhe left his family in Ethiopia to travel to China to study in 2009, he admits he knew nothing about China.
Seeking a headstart in Ethiopia's competitive business world, the high-school graduate signed up for his bachelor's degree at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, arriving in the country with no Chinese language skills and only the vaguest notion of what the next four years would bring.
"I came here blindfolded. When I got on the plane to come here, I only knew two things about China - the Olympics and the Great Wall," the 24-year-old says.
"I was going to go into business, so it only made sense that I studied in the country that has dominated our business and commerce in the last few years."
Preparing to graduate with a degree in economics, Berhe says he will return home in July to work in the family construction business, using the knowledge gained to help secure more contracts with Chinese companies operating in Ethiopia.
He is part of the first big wave of Africans to study in China following the efforts of the Forum on China and Africa Cooperation in 2006 encouraging a dramatic increase in educational and cultural exchanges between the two economies.
"One of the main objectives of the forum is to bridge the gap for Africans to come and get educated for the enhancement of both Africa and China," Berhe says.
Over the past five years, the number of Africans studying in China has risen by an average of more than 20 percent a year. In 2003 the number was 1,793, and last year it was 30,000, according to statistics provided by the Ministry of Education.
Though China still lags behind Europe and US in attracting students, it is quickly catching the eye of scholars and the children of influential Africans who see the continent's future inexorably tied to China.
France is still the largest destination for African students traveling outside the continent to study, hosting a total of 111,195 African students in 2010, or almost 30 percent of all African students studying abroad, according to numbers from Campus France, the French government's agency for monitoring international student movements.
But with China overtaking Europe and the US as the continent's largest trading partner, Africans going abroad to study are now heading to Asia as they seek to learn business insights from one of the quickest developing economic regions.
For Sebastian Collins, who is finishing a five-year international trade degree in Beijing, taking the route less traveled to learn business was what drove him to enroll in a Chinese university.
"I didn't want to follow the conventional style of my family and friends - everybody wanted to go to the US and the UK - I wanted to go see another part of the world," the 27-year-old Liberian says.
"I've always been interested in business. With China's business and economic prosperity I thought maybe I could go and try to get one or two lessons from them."
During a trip home two years ago, he was offered two jobs, one translating and one working with Chinese customers at a bank, but turned them down wanting to finish his studies.
Compared with other African nations Liberia only conducts a small amount of trade, mostly resources, with China, Collins says. Capitalizing on his knowledge of Chinese consumers, he plans to use his degree to set up an agricultural exports business, something he sees as a large future market, when he returns home after graduating in July.
"(The Chinese) are still trying to enter the Liberian market," he says.
"So with my knowledge of China and with my connections that I've got here over the past few years, I'm thinking that instead of continuing to import stuff why don't we try to take something back to Liberia and export it to the rest of the world, including China?"
Business-related degrees are the most popular among African students studying in Beijing, with 40 percent pursuing an education in economics, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Chinese Studies at the end of 2012.
The survey found those studying science was the second-highest percentage, 39 percent, and politics and social studies the next, 19 percent.
Surprisingly, students traveling to China to concentrate solely on language accounted for only 2 percent of the students surveyed.
This is a far cry from more than a decade ago when many of the Africans coming to study in China focused on culture and language, says Maurice Gountin, who gained his PhD from Renmin University of China in 2008.
Traveling from Benin for his bachelor's degree in Chinese language and culture at Beijing Language and Culture University in 1998, he says it was the draw of having a specialized language skill that first brought him to China.
"I was just curious about the Chinese civilization but also wanted to study something specialized like the Chinese language," he says.
Following his language study, he completed a master's in international politics at Beijing Language and Culture University before enrolling for a PhD in contemporary Chinese diplomacy at Renmin University. He returned to Benin in 2009, where he now works as a public affairs officer, language instructor and translator at a Chinese culture center. People in Africa with Chinese language skills are in high demand, he says.
"China is playing an important role in international issues, and its relations with Africa are more strategic, making us China specialists important resources."
Swelling the ranks of African students are self-paid students seeking studies in China, scholarships provided by the Chinese government to African countries, and more courses being offered in English by Chinese universities.
During his visit to Tanzania in March 2013, President Xi Jinping outlined a plan to provide more than 18,000 government scholarships to African students looking to study in China between 2013 and 2015.
The effort is part of a push to show support for Africa, while helping expand global understanding of China.
"China will continue to offer, as always, necessary assistance to Africa with no political strings attached," Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying at the time of the announcement.
During the 2012-13 academic year, China spent more than 1.5 billion yuan ($241.2 million) to help fund more than 23,000 international students.
In previous years a large percentage of government scholarships went to students from African countries.
In 2010, 25.5 percent of Chinese government scholarships awarded to international students went to students from Africa, according to Chinese Scholarship Council Annual report 2010.
"More Chinese government scholarships are being offered every year. So the chances of getting one are also increasing," says He Wenping, director and professor of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Most of the scholarships cover tuition, housing and health insurance expenses. Students also receive a stipend depending on their program, ranging from 1,500-2,000 yuan ($240-$320) a month. With most campus meals costing around 10 yuan, it is enough to cover the average cost of living for a student.
The cost of each scholarship to the Chinese government is around 50,000-60,000 yuan per student, per year.
Antoine Lokongo, 45, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has spent the past five years studying for his PhD in international relations at Peking University, says the benefits of such scholarships far outweigh any financial cost to the government.
"China has been experiencing double-digit growth for the last five years. Their economy is strong as it's ever been. To them the cost of providing these scholarships is not big."
"But for students like me, who will return home and bring knowledge of China, knowledge of how to do business with China, the benefit is priceless."
After graduating next year, Lokongo says he will return to the DRC to pursue a job in government or international consulting.
He says he has already seen the benefits of students returning to work in their home countries.
One former classmate, also on a scholarship, returned home to find a job with Chinese tech giant Huawei, helping train Africans on the ground for the company's West African operations.
"This is an example where the benefits go both ways. Africans need training and China needs people knowledgeable about how they do business," Lokongo says.
And while scholarships provided by the Chinese government are contributing to the rise in the number of Africans, the big growth is in students willing to pay their own way for education in China.
Out of the roughly 8,000 African students studying in China in 2008, a majority, around 5,000, were studying on scholarships.
Last year, out of the estimated 30,000 African students studying in China, only a slightly higher amount than 2008 - 7,000 - were receiving scholarship, meaning 23,000 were privately funded.
"It used to be only those who had political connections or who were rich would be able to study abroad," says Norbert Haguma, CEO of the Young African Professionals and Students organization and Kiziga, an online platform designed to connect Africans with Chinese universities and jobs.
"What China has brought is an education abroad that Africa's middle-class can afford."
A year's study for a Bachelor of Science at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, one of South Africa's most prestigious institutions, costs about $3,400, compared with $4,800 a year for a comparable program at Tsinghua University.
The average cost of studying a four-year degree at a public university in the US is $23,000 a year.
"Relatively speaking, the tuition fees for learning in China are much lower than in Western countries, even for the self-funded students," says He from CASS.
Forgoing a free education at a public university in Ethiopia, Berhe says he chose to pay out of pocket because of the moneymaking potential a China education would have when he returns home to work.
"I'm investing far more coming here than back home, where I could get free education all in the hope of it paying back in the future," he says.
Outside Africa, however, he says things may be different.
"If you're coming back to Africa with a Chinese degree, any company that deals with Chinese clients is going to see it as a huge plus ... but if I take the degree to Europe I don't think it would be very beneficial."
For Gountin of Benin, who worked in China for a year after gaining his PhD, the money he could earn back in Africa was the biggest draw.
"I considered staying in China, but the job I got at that time could not guarantee my everyday living expenses and support my family. I decided then to leave China and come back home to explore other opportunities," Gountin says.
"I have no regrets coming back, though I often miss the food."
Also fueling the number of African students studying in China is the number of English programs now available.
With a push by Chinese universities to offer more courses in English, Mandarin is no longer a barrier for international students.
Scrolling through the offerings on the Chinese university and college admission systems website reveals hundreds of courses taught in English, with topics ranging from e-commerce law to medical degrees.
More than 36 higher education institutions are now offering a broad range of courses in English, the aim being to attract international students.
China's efforts to attract more international students are a soft power push aimed at increasing understanding of China globally, rather than making money from tuition fees, says Yang Rui, professor of education at Hong Kong University and a researcher on China's higher education.
"Institutions have been trying very hard to recruit more international students," he says.
"But they all stress international understanding far more than the income generated from international students.
"This is partially due to the fact that for too long China has not been understood by others. China is keen to be understood better. This is also in line with the current international situation of China. It is obvious that China needs a peaceful and even friendly environment to develop."
Provincial universities that would be otherwise unknown to those outside China have been pushing particularly hard to attract international students, Rui says.
In the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, the local government has donated its own funds, in addition to the central government scholarships, to attract students to its schools.
Finding and connecting to programs such as these are difficult for students who do not have connections already in China.
Berhe, who was directed to the program at UIBE by an uncle already in Beijing, says without someone in the country to help, finding a suitable program and going through the application process can be daunting.
"The application process was quite hard," he says.
"For example, if you want to apply for a university from Ethiopia, the online payment was quite difficult. We don't have much access to credit cards and so on. So in the past you would definitely have to have someone here helping you out."
This is changing as student networks established by graduates make it easier for those without pre-existing connections in China to get help.
The organization Young African Professionals and Students, started in 2009, has 3,000 members. It provides support and information for Africans looking to study in China.
Another, organization, Kiziga, has connected with 186 universities that are actively seeking African students. Now, as more students gain their degrees, they have turned their focus on helping find jobs, says Haguma, the company's CEO.
"One problem is that there are not many internships here in China, but we're trying to create them," he says.
Starting last year, Kiziga managed to place 20 students in internships in China. This year, Haguma says it aims to place 100 students.
Part of the problem is the lack of multinational companies from Africa working in China.
While many Chinese companies are setting up operations in Africa, students who wish to remain in China to use their degree find difficulties with employment.
"In general the job market in China is very competitive so it is very difficult for Africans to find jobs in the country," Berhe says.
"There are a few South African companies that are involved in different industries in China, but other countries lack MNCs that have invested in China."
Still, as the future of China and Africa becomes increasingly intertwined, it is the newest generation of Africans who have honed their skills in China that will be leading the development charge.
"Africa is now where China was 30 years ago, so people who did not invest in China 30 years ago are now scratching their heads," Berhe says.
"Since China is heavily involved in Africa, it only seems fit to get technology transfer, language and other skills needed to help the continent develop."
(China Daily Africa Weekly 04/11/2014 page1)