Belt and Road

Foreign affairs

Study buddy programme proves controversial


Helping overseas students to fit in

In the Practical Chinese Reader – a textbook commonly used to teach Chinese – there are three main characters: Gubo, Palanka and Ding Yun. Gubo and Palanka are international students said to have arrived in Beijing in the 1970s. Their personal histories are never disclosed and the rest of the book is often very dry – one early piece of vocabulary to appear is the “Four Modernisations”, a policy devised by Deng Xiaoping to rejuvenate the economy.

That dryness often led bored language students to speculate on Gubo and Palanka’s background and the nature of their relationship.

In 2002, when an updated version of the textbook was published, it all became clear. Gubo is Canadian – real name probably Cooper – and Palanka isn’t his girlfriend. He ended up marrying Ding Yun – a local student who helped him and Palanka navigate life in China.

So why is all of this relevant today? Well, international students have become a topic of debate, due to their growing number and allegations that they are getting too much preferential treatment.

The most recent incident involved a “study buddy” programme at Shandong University, where Chinese participants – mostly female – were asked if they were “heterosexual” before being paired with foreign students, who were usually male.

The number of international students has exploded as Chinese universities gain a better reputation and Chinese language skills become more important – especially for students from countries more involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

According to the Ministry of Education, 492,000 foreign students are studying in China and the goal is to reach 500,000 by 2020. But in order to lure international students away from more traditional destinations China feels it has to offer some perks. In some cases these are scholarships – the Ministry of Education paid for 63,000 foreigners to study in China last year. Then there are the efforts to make them feel welcome. Part of the reason the Shandong University “study buddy” system got so much criticism was that it allotted three local students to help each international one. As many netizens pointed out, Chinese students going overseas are lucky to get any one-on-one help at all. Conversely, the mood has turned suspicious and even hostile to Chinese applicants at many universities in the US (see WiC459).

There is also the sexual undertone of assigning local women to look after male newcomers as Shandong University had proposed. Some netizens had a problem with this for stereotyping gender roles, others were more worried about the girls’ safety. “These are young women living away from home for the first time and they are being asked to take these men to parties and help them with personal stuff. It would be better if this work was done by university staff,” said one on Sina Weibo.

The university initially defended the policy saying it had wanted to deepen cultural exchange across the student body but it later apologised, saying it was wrong to ask students about their sexuality during the screening process.

This isn’t the first time that supposedly preferential treatment for foreign students has caused a stir. A year ago a video detailing the differences between dorms for Chinese and foreign students was widely distributed on social media. Locals were sleeping six to a smallish room and using a communal bathroom down the corridor. The foreign students were two to a room and sharing a modern ensuite bathroom.

Another video provoked anger when it showed an Egyptian student tussling with a traffic cop when it emerged the student wasn’t punished for his traffic violation or his subsequent outburst. Since then the Ministry of Education has said that foreign students should expect to be punished if they break the rules. In the meantime the ministry has forked out Rmb3.3 billion ($480 million) on scholarships for non-Chinese students, with the suggestion that the funding is being more closely aligned with BRI-affiliated countries. One rumour is that Chinese universities have a new quota: for every student taken from a Western nation, three must be accepted from a BRI country, which predominantly means applicants from an African nation or Pakistan.

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