Education in China is a Two-way Traffic

May 28, 2009
*Special to asia!

The flow of students into and out of China is sparking great changes.


More than 300 Chinese "undergraduates" in South Korea were recently rounded up by the police and sent home. They were charged with entering the country using fake high school certificates. No one believes this is the end of the matter. In fact, the 300 are said to be just a small portion of the large number of illegal Chinese "students" in Seoul and other Korean cities. There are 33,000 Chinese studying in South Korea's higher institutions. Informal estimates say less than half are genuine students. Others spend their time either as illegal workers in restaurants and construction sites, or in bars and game arcades.

Before the round-up, South Korea had sent a team of investigators to China. They were shocked to find it was not only easy, but cheap, to buy a certificate of a reputable high school, or even a university, in China from a roadside stall. Such stalls proliferate in major cities. Some cities even boast off a "street of fake certificates". The investigators also found agents promising to get Chinese in South Korean universities for fees ranging from 40,000 to 80,000 yuan (US$5416 to $10,832). After South Korea complained to China, many such agents have closed down. But others have quickly sprung up.

Going overseas is a big thing in China. A survey by a major newspaper found that 86% think having studied abroad would enhance their status and employment possibilities at home. In 2006, more than 130,000 left the country for studies. Their favorite destinations: the US, Britain, France, Canada and Australia. In Asia, South Korea, due to its proximity, shared culture and high living standards, scored top marks.

Just as the many Chinese who have gone to Japan since World War II have stayed there, many Chinese students in South Korea today are unlikely to return home. Some will find employment with South Korean firms (although they might eventually be sent back to China), while others will join triads, go into prostitution, or become extortionists or drug runners. It is no wonder the South Koreans are keen to take steps to keep unsuitable Chinese students out.

Westerners are attracted to China for one reason: its economy, which could in a decade become the second largest in the world after the US.

Thirty years ago, this problem would not have existed. In 1978, China was a closed country, with only a trickle of students studying in other Communist countries. Today the two-way flow of business in China is big business. In 2006, China hosted a total of 86,000 foreign students. Though that is small compared to outflow numbers (130,000 left the country for studies in 2006 alone), the number is nevertheless impressive considering that there were virtually no foreign students in 1978, and less than 8,000 in 1988. As China grows in status, it also wants to attract more foreign students. The education authorities hope for 120,000 foreign students in their universities by August this year.  Ambitious? Perhaps not. Most of the foreign students in China are from Asia, but in recent years, the number of Western students is growing, and could soon overtake the number of Asians.

Westerners are attracted to China for one reason: its economy, which could in a decade become the second largest in the world after the US. Suddenly reading and speaking Chinese has become a good skill to have. In the West, many universities now offer Chinese as part of their core programmes. But given the high cost of education - US$150,000 for a four-year undergraduate course in a good US university - more students are turning to a more viable alternative. They study Chinese in China, in a total immersion environment and at much cheaper rates.

Would these foreigners stay on after their studies? Many would, as China is where the action is today. Others may be attracted by the culture and lifestyle to put down their roots. Just as Chinese foreign students are gradually changing the societies they study in, China itself is being slowly changed by the many foreigners it has accepted into its midst.


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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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