Politics & Government

To soften its image, China courts African students

Kenyan students visit the China Education Exhibtion at the University of Nairobi.
Kenyan students visit the China Education Exhibtion at the University of Nairobi. Evelyn Hockstein / MCT

NAIROBI, Kenya — The caricature of China in Africa is that of an insatiable giant that gobbles up mines and oilfields and floods marketplaces with low-cost goods. Now China has embarked on a new campaign that it hopes will soften that image — by reaching out to African students.

Beijing is opening schools and institutes, deploying Mandarin language teachers and offering more university scholarships across Africa in a bid to build a cultural sphere of influence to match its overwhelming economic reach into the world’s poorest continent.

But despite rapidly expanding economic ties — China-Africa trade, which hit a record $55 billion last year, is projected to reach $100 billion by 2010 — bridging the cultural divide isn’t so simple, as a recent Chinese university expo here in the Kenyan capital made clear.

Kenyan students who visited the booths of more than 30 universities represented complained that many of the Chinese recruiters spoke only broken English. Responses to queries about tuition and admissions requirements were often terse variations of “Visit the university Web site.”

Irene Ombura, 25, had a brief, frustrating exchange with a smiling, bespectacled recruiter named Liu Wenzheng at the Capital University of Economics and Business booth.

“What jobs can I get as a student?” asked Ombura, a no-nonsense economics major who, as the oldest of seven children, would have to pay her way through graduate school.

“If you have a student visa, you are not allowed to work,” Liu said.

“How do I keep myself?” Ombura asked.

Liu remained silent for several seconds, until Ombura rephrased: “Are things more expensive in China than Kenya?”

Another long pause. Finally, he replied, “I have no idea.”

“How beneficial is it to go to China?”

“I have no idea about that.”

Several booths away, Runji Kanya, 23, complained: “These people can’t explain things very clearly. English is a problem.”But the University of Nairobi senior admitted to being dazzled by the array of schools and courses on display at the two-day expo.

Under a large white tent, glossy banners depicted multiethnic groups of students cavorting on leafy campuses, such as that of Beijing Jiaotong University, whose slogan read, “Smile. Care. Quality. Pleasure.”

The idyllic images seemed within Kenyans’ grasp. Tuition at most schools ranged from $3,000 to $4,000 per year for undergraduates, slightly higher than the fees for non-scholarship students at top Kenyan universities. Admission to highly competitive fields, such as medicine, is slightly easier at Chinese schools, a Kenyan education official said.

For students in Kenya, where slots in good universities are scarce and where even the best schools struggle with inadequate funds and crumbling infrastructure, studying in China is becoming a viable option.

“Obviously America comes first for innovation and quality,” said the wispy-bearded Kanya, who wants to study the economics of emerging markets. “But now China is bringing a new concept to education and industry.”

This year, 22 Kenyan students won Chinese scholarships, with most studying engineering, information technology or medicine.

“There is potential to have many more students,” said Bo Liu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi. “The Chinese government has promised to help African countries in every way.”Students from Africa made up a scanty 2.3 percent of the 162,000 foreign students studying in China last year. The Chinese government, which already allocates one-fifth of its international scholarships to Africans, plans to double the number of scholarships for Africa to 4,000 by 2009.

At a major summit in Beijing last year, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced a three-year plan for education in Africa, including training 15,000 African professionals, building 100 rural schools and opening 30 centers for the treatment and study of malaria.

Beijing also has opened a series of Confucius Institutes across the continent to promote Chinese cultural studies and dispatched 200 language teachers to feed a growing demand. According to the official Xinhua news agency, more than 8,000 African students were learning Mandarin last year.

In opening the university expo, Kenya’s assistant minister for education, Kilemi Mwiria, said China had given Kenyans “access to cheap but very high quality education.” He urged students to learn Mandarin and to bring back other lessons.

“The future is very much in China. Learn from their culture,” Mwiria said. “Do not be scared of mixing with Chinese people. If you find people that want to marry you, go ahead.”

But language loomed as an obstacle. Peter Kaiga, a recent college grad who’s trying to sharpen his academic credentials to win a job in market research, learned this the hard way as he went from booth to booth searching for a master’s degree program in statistics.

At Beijing Jiaotong, Kaiga found such a course. The 25-year-old, smartly dressed in navy slacks and a white button-down shirt, asked the recruiter stiffly, “In English?”

“No,” she replied. “All classes are taught in Chinese. Sorry.”

Kaiga pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and scribbled a note on the university’s brochure. “Maybe I will learn Chinese,” he mused afterward, and he left the expo tent with a stack of brochures tucked under his arm.

(McClatchy special correspondent Munene Kilongi contributed to this report.)

Related stories from McClatchy DC