Beijing is ramping up efforts to entice foreign elites with university scholarships in a bid to build its “soft power”, an expert on international affairs has said.
Peter Cai, a research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, pointed to a recent announcement that China would award 10,000 scholarships to students in Arab countries.
This is part of Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, a plan to build overland and maritime infrastructure to link China with the Middle East, Europe, East Africa and Southeast Asia.
The Chinese government is “keen to build its soft power through scholarship programs”, Mr Cai, who previously worked at the Australian Treasury, wrote on the Interpreter, the Lowy Institute’s online platform.
Aside from these future plans, “China is already enjoying some successes in attracting future elites to its campuses”, he said.
“You can spot offspring of North Korean senior cadres on the campus of Peking University through their Kim Jong-un pins and slick polo shirts. Some African kleptocrats like to send their kids to Beijing to study,” Mr Cai argued.
“Even Singapore's official class, which is incredibly brand-conscious when it comes to universities, is taking a shining to Beijing — some Singaporean government scholars with degrees from Oxbridge are going to Peking University instead of the Harvard Kennedy School for their further education.”
The president of Ethiopia, Mulatu Teshome, studied in China for 12 years including at Peking University where he was a classmate of Chinese premier Li Keqiang, Mr Cai pointed out. This Chinese education was reported to have influenced President Teshome’s reform programme, he added.
However, Beijing is simply following the example of Western countries in using scholarships “as instruments of diplomacy”, he said.
“The Brits have Rhodes and Chevening, the Americans have Marshall and Fulbright, and the Australian government has created a lot of goodwill in its neighbourhood through the New Colombo Plan.”