Why China wants African students to learn Mandarin

The largest language promotion project the world has ever seen? Chinese teacher/Shutterstock

While China’s dramatic economic and trade impact on Africa has caught global attention, there has little focus on its role in education.

But there are important questions raised by China’s education push into Africa. Why does China run one of the world’s largest short-term training programmes, with plans to take 30,000 Africans to China between 2013 and 2015? Why does it give generous support to 38 Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture at many of Africa’s top universities from the Cape to Cairo?

And why is China one of the very few countries to increase the number of full scholarships for Africans to study in its universities, with a total of 18,000 anticipated between 2013 and 2015?

Not the MDGs

China is not pursuing these training and education initiatives because of support for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) or the Education for All goals. These and other goals are being discussed a great deal at the moment, because of what may happen to the world’s development after the deadline to meet them passes in 2015.

But these debates are not yet so evident in China. At the moment, if you refer to 2015 in China, it has more significance in development circles, as the date for the next meeting of the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

Nor is China providing these training resources to Africa in the manner of a traditional donor from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). China avoids the language of donors and recipients as much as possible, and shows no interest in becoming a member the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, which measures donors’ aid commitments and delivery.

Instead, this provision of many different forms of training support is presented by China as South-South cooperation, or as elements in a new strategic partnership between China and Africa.

‘Win-win’ or soft power?

At its simplest, China’s efforts can be seen as just an example of “win-win” cooperation, or as an illustration of “common development”. In other words, it is claimed to be just one side of a process of mutual benefit: China is gaining something from Africa, and Africa from China.

This is not to say that cooperation is symmetrical. Africa does not offering parallel training numbers to China as it is receiving. Rather, according to the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, China currently sends 100,000 tourists to South Africa, and 1,000 students annually. These are not aid projects, but private initiatives. There are similar examples of win-win cooperation with many other countries in Africa.

Cooperation in the development of human resources is part of China’s soft power engagement with Africa rather than its considerable “hard power” of infrastructure development, trade, or material resources – still a large focus of China’s engagement with the continent.

It is this soft power that Lu Shaye, director general of African Affairs at China’s ministry of foreign affairs, commended in 2013 as an “indispensable” element in China’s diplomacy with Africa. Essentially, for him soft power means “strengthening the cultural exchanges between China and Africa”.

Chinese president Xi Jinping signs a trade deal with Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete in 2013. STR

It is for this reason that education and training cooperation has been one of the “red threads” of China’s engagement with Africa right back to 1956 when China established diplomatic relations with Egypt.

Power in numbers

This whole discussion about the exact purpose of China’s provision of training awards and of scholarships has been overtaken by the growth of trainee and student numbers. In 2011, there were almost 300,000 foreign students in China – the great majority of who were actually self-supported.

Exactly the same is true of African students in China: while the China scholarship numbers in 2011 were just over 6,000, the self-supported students were more than double, at over 14,000. In other words, China is evidently an attractive destination for international study for Africans, quite apart from its scholarship provision.

The same point could be made about China’s formal promotion of Mandarin and of Chinese culture and history via its Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms. This is possibly the largest language promotion project the world has ever seen, taking place in just nine years since the first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul in November 2004. Yet it too is dwarfed by the sheer numbers of students worldwide who are deciding to learn Chinese, outside the framework of the Confucius institutions.

A final point about China-Africa training, is that it is even harder to calculate the large number of Africans who are acquiring skills in Chinese firms, large and small, from Senegal to Ethiopia, and from Egypt to Zimbabwe.

This is very different from training in enterprises associated with other countries such as the US or France in Africa. This is because of the presence of perhaps as many as a million Chinese “settlers”, traders and entrepreneurs who have turned up in almost all the countries of the African continent over the last decade.

Of course their main purpose is trade, rather than training Africans – similar to the purpose of the Europeans and Indians who came to Africa in earlier decades. But there are growing opportunities for Africans to learn on the job in Chinese firms and to use Mandarin.