Students from countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative benefit from education experience in China
Editor's note: People-to-people exchanges are deepening the connections between countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. This column celebrates the efforts of those working toward a shared future.
For most Chinese meeting Yachongtou Bouaphanh, it would probably not be readily apparent that he is a foreigner. For apart from being Asian, he speaks Chinese with the slightest hint of an accent. The Laotian might even be taken for a Guangxi local.
Yachongtou started to learn Chinese at the Confucius Institute when he was an undergraduate in Laos, and took on a Chinese name, Du Kaikang. It was the movies of the kung fu actor Jet Li that had attracted him to learn more about China and its culture, he says.
In 2018 he won first place in the Laos division of the Chinese Bridge Competition, a contest for foreign students on their mastery of the Chinese language. He then applied for a Chinese government scholarship and traveled to the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
Yachongtou, 28, is a second-year graduate student of Guangxi University for Nationalities in Nanning, where he has studied since 2019, specializing in economics and language, including topics such as the effect of language skills on income and trade.
"It's not new in China, but no one in Laos has done any research on it," says Yachongtou, who obtained a bachelor's degree at the National University of Laos. "I think it could be quite useful in the future."
He is undecided about what path to follow after he graduates, but it is likely to be something related to trade and economic collaboration between China and Laos, two important countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.
In addition to Laos, other ASEAN countries－Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam－have conducted educational exchange with China for decades. They have become even closer after the 10 countries joined the BRI.
Even as countless Chinese study abroad, China plays host to many students from Asian countries. Of the international students in China in 2019, 54.1 percent were from countries participating in the BRI, according to Ministry of Education data published last year.
Yachongtou is among tens of thousands of foreign students in Guangxi, one of the regions in China that hosts the most overseas students from ASEAN countries.
In 2019 international students from these 10 BRI countries studying in Guangxi accounted for 64 percent of all foreign students there. Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam each had more than 1,000 of its nationals pursuing higher education in Guangxi.
In the same year, Guangxi University for Nationalities recruited 1,555 foreign students, more than 93 percent of them from ASEAN countries. Because of COVID-19, the university has fewer foreign students, but 815 from ASEAN countries were admitted last year, accounting for more than 87 percent of its foreign student intake.
"Guangxi has its advantages of location, being close to many ASEAN countries," says Feng Guanghuo, director of the university's Department of International Cooperation and Exchange. "In our university a lot of international students even used to fly back home for the weekend and be back in time for Monday's classes."
The Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, is just 30 minutes away by air, and the Laotian capital, Vientiane, is just 90 minutes away, Feng says. Convenient transport has greatly promoted communications among neighboring countries, so more international students have been attracted to apply to study in Guangxi, he says.
As education is part of the people-to-people communication, it should also be a dual process, he says.
"Since reform and opening-up began in the late 1970s, the university has also changed its educational model," he says. "We have international students come in, and should also have Chinese students go abroad."
Guangxi University for Nationalities was one of the first four national non-universal language centers in the country, specializing in languages of Southeast Asia since 1964, says Liao Dongsheng, secretary of the Party Committee at the College of International Education of the university.
"Because of the rich experience, we're able to improve communication and exchanges between China and ASEAN countries."
In the university, Chinese students who learn Lao can help Laotian students learn Chinese, and vice versa. "In two-way communication, speaking the same language is very important," Liao says.
"Our international graduate students even once complained that people from Beijing didn't speak standard Mandarin, and they couldn't understand," says Liao, laughing.
The university began to recruit international students in 1986 and had trained more than 20,000 international students from more than 80 countries by 2019, says Huang Xiaojuan, the university's vice-president.
Since 1993 Chinese students from the university have gone to countries including Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as part of exchange projects, she says.
The academy also works with more than 100 universities in more than 20 countries and regions on various projects.
More than 60 percent of these are "stable, substantive and long-term", including teacher training, student training, and scientific research cooperation, Feng says.
In July 2016 the Ministry of Education adopted a plan to promote joint construction under the framework of the BRI, including faculty training, joint talent training programs and a special government scholarship.
The plan encourages joint training in fields that involve matters such as transport, water conservancy engineering, marine science and ecological protection.
In 2018 the university and Padjadjaran University in Indonesia signed an agreement under the framework of the BRI to jointly build a laboratory for the sustainable use of marine biological resources.
The laboratory specializes in marine microbiology, marine conservation, aquaculture, fish processing, aquatic resource management, marine remote sensing and marine culture.
In addition to joint research it also encourages the exchange of students and staff between the two universities.
During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20), a new pattern of China's education opening to the world has accelerated.
China has signed 19 collaboration agreements with 14 international organizations, such as UNESCO, and educational collaboration between China and countries involved in the BRI has become even closer.
As participants continue to advance their educational cooperation, China and 25 countries involved in the BRI have signed agreements on mutual recognition of qualifications and degrees, promoting the implementation of 2,331 Chinese-foreign cooperative education institutions and projects.
Sino-foreign collaboration in running schools and international nongovernmental education exchanges have further promoted the vigorous development of China's education to the world.
Last November Suzhou Foreign Language School in Jiangsu province established a Silk Road International Institute to improve its ties with countries involved in the initiative.
The school will invite well-known scholars and has developed more than 20 overseas tour routes to upgrade its students' global competence as well as become more involved in people-to-people exchanges related to the BRI.
When COVID-19 broke out, many of Yachongtou's classmates returned to their countries during the winter holiday early last year. Many have had to continue their studies from their countries.
The university developed a series of classes and also takes advantage of courses on MOOC, an online education platform, says Feng, the director.
Teaching online can prove a challenge for many teachers, he says, because it requires them to keep students' attention and at the same time interact effectively with them even though they are physically separated from one another.
"After class, the teacher has to count and analyze various data, such as interaction rate, homework submission rate, and so on. It's really a huge challenge."
This is complicated by the fact that the quality of internet connection varies widely depending on the location of the student, he says, meaning that livestreaming is not always up to scratch.
The pandemic has partially changed the way the schools teach and examine students, and also influenced what people think about international educational communication and how it should be conducted.
Liao, the secretary, says the university could rely on partner institutions established in each country, making them temporary teaching revues that could bring together local students.
For those who have already graduated, the university is also in talks with companies on employing domestic and international students.
"For example, many of our domestic students who are learning Thai as well as some Thai students are interning in Thai companies in China or Sino-Thai joint venture enterprises," Feng says. "We are talking to consulates and more companies in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to work out more specific plans."
Huang, vice-president of Guangxi University for Nationalities, says that once the pandemic is over, the university and ASEAN plan to co-establish a college to better strengthen exchanges and collaboration in higher education among the neighbors.
The new academy will target the ASEAN market and cultivate talent with international vision and multicultural literacy, knowledge of international rules, and an interest in international affairs, Huang says.