China has witnessed a phenomenal increase in the number of international students it hosts in recent years. According to Unesco, it has seen a 74 per cent rise between 2012 and 2017, seeing its total number of international students climb to more than 200,000.
Official Chinese figures put the total for 2017 at more than double that: a 10.5 per cent increase in one year, putting it just 11,000 short of its target of recruiting 500,000 students by 2020. South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan and the US were the top source countries.
China’s liberal visa and post-study employment regime for foreign students complements the Middle Kingdom’s global economic ambitions. The presence of international students gives Chinese leaders an opportunity to showcase their country’s breathtaking economic and technological progress over the past 50 years. It also enables Chinese culture, in the widest sense, to capture the imagination of a wider international audience and boost China’s emerging soft power: a concept well known in the West but adopted by China only recently.
There has been no Big Bang. Rather, the liberalisation of China’s international student regulations has occurred in a typically Chinese step-by-step fashion, shifting to a new trajectory without stoking domestic upheaval.
Among the first reforms was the policy introduced in the Shanghai city region in 2015 allowing Chinese companies to recruit international students as interns for up to two years after graduation, giving them greater opportunity to stay in China. International students were also permitted to start a business in the city’s Zhangjiang National Innovation Demonstration Zone, a hub for start-ups, in a bid to harness the foreign talent for domestic innovation and entrepreneurship.
Under another reform introduced in 2017, international students have been permitted to take up part-time employment during their studies. And last year, people on postgraduate courses in China, as well as undergraduates at “well-known” Chinese universities, were allowed to obtain work visas for up to five years after graduation.
Government encouragement has also seen the number of courses at Chinese universities taught in English rise by nearly two-thirds over the past five years, attracting students from developing anglophone nations such as India and Pakistan. Those from more advanced countries such as the US and the UK are also being targeted, and the number of students in China from the US and the UK have reportedly doubled and tripled, respectively, between 2005 and 2015.
This internationalisation is also supported by the opening on university campuses of food outlets catering to different cultures, offering options as halal food – although religious facilities and religious freedom remain limited.
These policy reforms have coincided with Xi Jinping’s vast Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect people living along the historical Silk Route. Of the scholarships that the Chinese government offers to overseas students, it is estimated that about 60 per cent have been allocated to students from countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Under another initiative, cooperation with third countries is also being sought. One example is the UK-China Belt and Road Initiative Partnership Fund, which launched at the end of last year to facilitate the exchange of students, academics and researchers between the UK, China and Belt and Road countries. The funding comes from the British Council, but the fund’s board includes representatives of the Chinese Ministry of Education.
The export of Chinese universities along the traditional Silk Route is a landmark strategy employed to support the Belt and Road Initiative. China has already set up university campuses in Laos, Malaysia and Thailand, besides establishing Confucius Centres at various universities around the world. Such measures tend to garner greater support for the initiative’s geostrategic dimension, especially in South and South-east Asia, the regions crucial to its success. On the economic side, the establishment of Chinese campuses could be leveraged to improve and tailor the local skill set according to the needs of local Chinese companies: a win-win situation for the hosts and the Chinese firms.
All these developments reflect the fusion under way between socialist political philosophy and Western entrepreneurial zeal in China. This is happening at a time when the voices of protectionism and popular nationalism are gaining strength elsewhere. It demonstrates China’s greater confidence in itself, just as Western leadership is becoming more introverted.
Abdur Rehman Cheema is an academic and development practitioner based in Islamabad.
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