Why African students are choosing China over the West

China has leapfrogged the West to become the second most popular destination for African international students. But is everything as harmonious as Beijing claims?

Just the Basics

  • Thousands of African students are flocking to China lured by affordable tuition, generous scholarships and the hope of becoming liaisons between China and Africa

  • China has made education a key pillar of its engagement with Africa, with international students a growing economic and soft-power target demographic

  • Concerns about education quality, consistency and government interference may actually be turning some African students off of China

“I didn’t expect so much Africans here […] I was shocked [sic].” This is how Violet Bwalya described her initial impression of her surroundings as a new international student. Having left her native Zambia to study abroad in 2013, Violet’s reaction highlights a trend which has only increased in recent years. Africans are the fastest growing international student demographic, comprising thirteen percent of all international students in 2017, up from just two percent in 2003.

Whereas Africa’s youth has long sought out institutions of higher learning in the United States and the continent’s former colonial rulers - notably France and the UK - Violet was not talking about her experiences in the West. Violet is a student at Tongji University, in China. She is one of thousands of young Africans who are making the journey to the Middle Kingdom to pursue their studies. In little more than a decade, China has leapfrogged both the UK and United States to become (behind France) the second most popular destination for African students.

As to how long France can retain the lead remains to be seen, but the Chinese government has made a concerted effort to woo fledgling talent from Africa to its shores. Interestingly, Beijing’s effort to attract African studnets does not herald yet another catalyst for Africa’s brain drain, as China’s strict visa policies see the vast majority of African students returning to their home countries upon graduation.

China leaves anglophone West in the dust

In 2003, less than 2,000 African international students were calling China home, yet a mere thirteen years later, this number had ballooned to around 60,000; a twenty-six fold increase. If one takes 2000 as the starting point, 60,000 represents a forty-four fold increase. As a result, “proportionally, more African students are coming to China each year than students from anywhere in the world.” Whereas the United States leads in raw numbers, with over a million international students compared to less than half that number in China, fully half of all foreign students in the U.S come from just two countries: China and India. In comparison, over sixty African and Asian countries send more students to China than the United States.

[These programmes] offer a new channel for Africans to know what’s happening in the real China [...] The students work like a bridge between the two [regions].
— Zhang Yanqui, director of the African Communications Research Centre

For instance, Violet’s home country of Zambia sent 3,248 students to China in 2016, compared to just 469 to the United States in the same year. Then there is South Sudan: Africa’s newest country is only seven years old and already China has provided some 4,100 scholarships and short-term training opportunities.

While France maintains a commanding lead among francophone Africans China has (as of 2017) become the top destination for Anglophone students, particularly from eastern Africa. For the 2015/2016 academic year, China’s prestigious Tsinghua University revealed Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe as among the top sources of African students. Interestingly, both Morocco and Cameroon made the list, a warning to France that its hegemony in francophone Africa may be threatened. West Africa is also home the single largest source of African students in China: Ghana. The small anglophone nation has more than 7,000 students studying in China, a fact acknowledged by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has pledged to increase the number of scholarships allocated to Ghanaian students.


Billing itself as a fellow third-world nation lacking a colonial legacy in Africa, China is keen to secure the affections of Africa’s next generation of leaders, especially given the continent’s youth bulge. Moreover, bringing African students to China and familiarizing them with it is seen as a key tactic by Beijing in its efforts to counter negative attitudes towards China which have arisen in the wake of the country’s growing economic footprint in Africa.

“Between China and Africa [...] there are a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions of each other,” notes Zhang Yanqui, director of the African Communications Research Centre at Communication University of China. “[These programmes] offer a new channel for Africans to know what’s happening in the real China [...] The students work like a bridge between the two [regions].

To this end, China has instituted a wide ranging system of scholarships and other incentives to entice African students to study abroad. Many African international students in China are receiving full scholarships paid for by the Chinese government. Beijing has repeatedly stated that it is on track to honour its 2015 pledge of 30,000 scholarships for African students by 2018. During the 2018 summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing China promised to increase this number to 50,000 as well as provide an equal number of training opportunities: two thousand Africans will also be invited to China for cultural exchanges.

China’s growing presence in the overseas training and education sector is also being aided by the inward focus of traditional education destinations in West. With the UK turning inward and preoccupied with questions of BREXIT, and the United States under President Trump planning a seventy-one percent reduction in Fulbright Scholarship funding in the 2019 budget, China has never been in a better position to take advantage of the vacuum created by the retreat of the West. The United States’ reputation is also being diminished by the Trump administration's use of student visa limits as a tool to achieve its foreign policy goals. China is also benefiting from the unsustainable tuition increases which are plaguing the American education sector.


The actions of the Trump administration and systemic concerns about tuition costs in the United States are dissuading many African students from studying in America: many are opting for China instead. | GAGE SKIDMORE


Between 2005 and 2015, the price of an undergraduate degree in the U.S rose thirty-four percent among public, and twenty-six percent among private non-profit institutions. Just as American students are suffering under a mountain of debt, so too are the costs of studying in the United States dissuading African students from studying there. Instead, many are opting to go to China which, even without scholarships, represents an affordable alternative. Such is China’s willingness to incentivize, not just African, but international students in general, that there is increasing criticism within China about the preferential treatment given to international students regarding admissions, scholarships and even accommodations versus Chinese students.

Nevertheless, to see this development as purely reactive on China’s part would be to misconstrue the dynamics of the situation. Beijing has been extremely proactive in its efforts to broaden its soft-power credentials in Africa.

Beijing funding Sino-centric education projects in Africa

With scholarships ranging from Confucius Institute programs down to scholarships from Chinese provincial and local governments, African students are presented with a bevy of options. There is even a joint Chinese - African Union (whose new $200 million facility was built by Beijing) scholarship for post-graduate degrees in China. Confucius Institutes in Africa are also partnering with African universities to establish Chinese studies programs, as seen by the launch of Makerere University’s (Uganda) Bachelor of Chinese and Asian Studies program in August in time for the 2018/2019 academic year.

Then there is Luyanzi College in Uganda, one of the largest learning institutions in Africa with Mandarin on its curriculum. Run by interracial couple Wang Lihong and Ayub Sooma, the school’s roughly 400 pupils are exposed to Mandarin on a daily basis, and the school has also received funding from the local Confucius Institute for a three-year trial to train Ugandans as Chinese teachers, with the first batch of 34 teachers expected to matriculate at the end of 2018. Wang and Sooma (who also heads the Uganda-China Friendship Association) met at Beijing University in 1990, and since returning to Uganda in the mid 1990s they have become vocal advocates of the power of education and the importance of people-to-people relations.


China’s education push goes beyond just university students, with the PRC positioning itself as the go-to training hub for all manner of African organizations. In terms of extending ties between academia and business, in 2011 the China-Africa Think Tank Forum was launched - funded by China Development Bank - in order to bring together Chinese and African think tanks. Zhejiang Normal University has gone further, launching the China-Africa Business Institution, “the first to combine [the] training of professionals and personnel with academic research and business counselling, committed to training ‘African hands’ for China and ‘Chinese hands’ for Africa.”

Chinese institutions are even advertising themselves as places for African officials to improve their governing skills, with the number of scholarships for African government leaders jumping from 200 to 1,000 in 2016. For instance, the China-Africa Local Government Cooperation program mentors several hundred sub-national and local administrators from Africa each year, with over 1,000 having received training since the program’s inception in 2012.

From OBOR to opposition parties, China has a training package for you

Much has been written about China’s transnational economic network and the effort which Beijing has put into strengthening these connections, notably via the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR). What has been under-reported is Beijing’s increasing focus in aiming scholarships at OBOR participating countries. This appears to be paying off: of the ten largest source countries of international students to China, eight are part of OBOR. This engagement is now being taken to the next level with the creation of the Silk Road School, which is affiliated with the prestigious Renmin University, and mandates potential applicants demonstrate an interest in Chinese culture and the OBOR project in particular. The school was opened in May, began enrolment in September 2018, and offers a Masters in Contemporary Chinese Studies.

Another school to note is one at the very heart of the Chinese political hierarchy. The Central Party School - the main organ behind the training of Chinese Communist Party members - offers leadership and political party organization training for African ruling parties, parliaments, and local governments. These training sessions are also extended to the youth wings of various African political parties via the China-Africa Young Leaders Forum. The latest iteration of this event took place in Guangdong in 2018 with seventy youth leaders from over forty African governing parties in attendance. 2018 also saw the 3rd China-Africa Youth Festival (the PRC’s version of Washington’s Young African Leaders Initiative) in Beijing, bringing together youth leaders in business, civil society, media and academia.


As China’s footprint in Africa grows, so does demand for Mandarin language learning


These training sessions courtesy of the Central Party School are also extended to politically neutral groups and most incredible of all to African opposition parties. The fact that China does not possess the latter does not appear to have deterred Beijing from offering training nonetheless. It is worth lingering on this point a while longer, for while it appears paradoxical that an authoritarian regime would permit opposition party training, one must look at these course offers through an economic, rather than political lens.

The powers that be in China view these educational offerings as simply another means to diversify exports and part of their goal of shifting to a service based economy. With regard to aiding opposition parties, China is merely responding to consumer demand. Just as Beijing has no need of cheap Halloween decorations or Bibles, it remains a leading producer of both. As long as these items and services are directed at foreigners, the government sees no conflict of interest. Moreover, with regards to opposition parties, Beijing is also hedging its bets, not wishing to alienate groups which may be in power in the future.

Courting Africa’s youth, both at home and abroad

A flagship vehicle for China’s engagement with Africa has been the spread of Confucius Institutes across the region. From the first institute in Seoul in 2004, these facilities have mushroomed across the globe. The first Confucius Institute in Africa was only established in 2012, yet there are now forty-eight, as well as an additional twenty-three Confucius Classrooms across Africa, with another seven planned for 2019. In less than six years, China has surpassed both the United States (forty) and UK (thirty-eight) in terms of the number of cultural institutions in Africa, although China stills lags far behind the 180 Alliance Francaise facilities scattered across the continent.

Chinese news media has also heavily invested in Africae, with state-news agency Xinhua having built (it tends to rent offices) its first facility outside Beijing in Nairobi. Once complete the Nairobi office will be the largest of Xinhua’s 180 overseas bureaus: the Chinese news service has also become the largest wire service in Africa. CCTV has also set up shop in Nairobi, augmenting its global coverage with an English-speaking all-African news team.


Chinese universities are benefiting from their relative affordability, especially compared to the US


It is interesting to note that this approach is different to how CCTV portrays Africa outside of Africa. African students in China are provided with televisions and access to CCTV English coverage of events in Africa. While some praised the greater emphasis on positive stories about Africa, lamenting the all too often one-sided portrayal of Africa in Western media, others found fault. For instance, Leroy from Zimbabwe argues that “it [the reporting style] is very Westernized [...] Why [are] all the presenters non-Chinese? If they want to express the Chinese opinion, the Westernized style is definitely not helping.”

Yu Xiang, a lecturer at Shanghai University interviewed Leroy and thirty-eight other African students from nineteen different countries on their experiences with Chinese media and its foreign language coverage of Africa during their time studying in China. Yu notes that since China views its African outreach program as a means to ingratiate itself with the continent’s future leaders, “their roles as future African leaders also means that they are a ‘captive’ future audience for CCTV and Chinese cultural messages.” Yu’s study also found greater scepticism and disagreement with CCTV’s narrative among self-funded students compared to those funded by the Chinese government. This distinction could be reflecting a bias regarding which students manage to obtain scholarships. We will return to this point later on in the article.

Greater familiarity with China may actually be souring the opinions of African students

In an ironic twist, China’s efforts to counter negative perceptions of itself in Africa by inviting African students to the country may in fact be contributing to a greater suspicion of China among said students. While Africans are familiar with the manifestations of Chinese economic might in Africa and the attendant concerns which follow, China’s remoteness works to blur its true power, allowing it greater control over how it appears to African audiences. Consequently, tropes about fellow-feeling and third world commonality are undermined as African students alight in Beijing, only to be overawed by the level of development and sheer might on display.

"Before I came here, I didn't know much about China and didn't even fear China at all and didn't even care,” notes Gloria Magambo from the National University of Rwanda. “But now when I know China and actually get to discover who they are and what they are doing that is when my fear is rising instead. Now I know more about China. I have discovered the strength of the Chinese, they are very determined people, and by studying their history I know that whatever Chinese want they can get it […] People with such determination, if their inner motive is colonisation, we're in trouble, we cannot beat them."

It seems that upon closer inspection, China is losing its lustre for some young Africans, as they acquire first-hand knowledge of the workings of the People’s Republic. While many are overawed by the speed and scale of Chinese development, China’s political system garners fewer plaudits. Instead of winning over African students, some are disillusioned when government interference compromises their education. Whereas Sydwell Mabasa, a South African doing an international communications master at Communication University of China, is pleased with the quality of teaching and ample benefits (including paid flights and a monthly allowance) provided by the university, he notes that Chinese government policy gets in the way.

Instead of learning about how to craft viral tweets on Twitter (which is banned in China), Mabasa and fellow students are using tools from the self-contained Chinese social media ecosystem; in this case it is Sina Weibo. “Teaching a course on new media when the most influential new media sites - including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Wordpress [not to mention Instagram, Whatsapp, Tumblr, Pintrest, Reddit and Flickr] are technically off-limits, necessarily compromises the course.”

Mabasa recounts one assignment where he and his fellow students were encouraged to set up a Sina-Weibo account and start micro-blogging. This assignment soon made the students feel the full force of Beijing’s overreach: “Whatever I say, they delete most of it,” notes one student, referring to the army of digital censors which monitor China’s social networks. In response, Mabasa describes it as “social networking with Chinese characteristics” a pithy bon mot alluding to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ which is how Beijing describes its approach to governing.


Many young Africans view a Chinese diploma as a way to open doors back home, even if they have reservations about the quality of said diploma


For many African international students in China, utility trumps quality

Lacking the soft power of other tertiary education providers, the scale and economy of China’s outreach to Africa appears to be the defining factor. While China has a handful of prominent universities it is also home to a slew of middling institutions, and the uneven quality of education provided is, for the most part, overridden by the advantages African students hope to garner in the future from a familiarity with the PRC.

“There seems to be a recognition among young Africans that China is going to be around for a while, and that there are relatively few Africans who can relate to China at all,” writes Simon Allison in The Guardian. “Europe and America are known entities [...] but China is still a mystery. To understand China - to be a China expert - is therefore a marketable skill which is valuable regardless of the content or quality of the degree [obtained].”

For [the Chinese] it’s like ‘you want the paper, so they give you the paper and you go home.’
— Ugandan student

Reservations among African students about the quality of the education provided by Chinese universities offer interesting insights into how China’s efforts to woo the continent’s youth are being received. For all the emphasis placed on increasing Mandarin proficiency, both by the government and third parties like Luyanzi College, the fact of the matter is that most African students receive English language instruction when studying in China. This state of affairs is largely a concession both to the needs of incoming students (and therefore China’s ability to maximize the number who do arrive) and the reality of English as the global lingua franca.

A related concern are the inconsistent standards and what is perceived as the ‘production-line attitude’ through which many African students are viewed. For example, some complain of the lax standards applied to African students, with one Ugandan student who wished to remain anonymous lamenting that “where I come from, you are really pushed by getting good grades. You are not going to get a 90 just by showing up or just going to the exam. But here when you come, they just give you 90s. For [the Chinese] it’s ‘like you want the paper’, so they give you the paper and you go home.”

Problems arise when there is a lack of preparation by Chinese educators to adequately cater to English-speaking classes. The shortage of instructors sufficiently proficient in English is another problem. Offering courses in English taught by non-native English speakers invariably compromises the clarity and breadth of teaching on offer. Such is the dearth of English teachers in China that some African students are opting to remain in China to teach English rather than return to their home countries. In a strange take on the ‘brain drain’ phenomenon, some students who have finished their post-graduate work opt to work as English teachers, despite having just completed years of studying for (ostensibly) higher status occupations.


The inconsistent quality of English-language education in China is a key complaint of African students studying in the PRC.


This phenomenon is in part due to the poor salaries in the respective home countries of the students in question. Daniel Asare, who graduated from medical school in Hainan province, but opted to teach English instead explains this trend. “I teach English as a private work; but trust me, I make double the salary a medical doctor is be making in Ghana. So, tell me why I should got back home [sic]?” Daniel’s experience is corroborated by his colleague Emmanuel Asamoah, who also sees no reason to return to Ghana to practice medicine as long pay in the country remains so low.

Chinese scholarships becoming another extension of African patronage networks

Inconsistent standards and concerns about ‘assembly line education’ reflect some systemic problems inherent to the way in which China engages with African nations. Despite the impressive array of scholarships and other incentives on display, a key shortcoming is the fact that efforts to establish a uniform, unified and merit-based scholarship system have floundered. The lack of central direction from Beijing means that various Chinese embassies, organizations and businesses are left to their own devices when trying to determine how said funds should be allocated. In most cases, scholarship oversight is delegated to individual African governments, which in turn leads to a wide disparity in selection criteria.

As Chinese scholarships are highly sought after, they invariably become focal points for corruption, as many African governments lack transparent vetting procedures for their distribution. Consequently, many scholarships are siphoned off by local elites for either their own benefit, or for the benefit of their supporters. Elites with friendly ties to China are sending their own children to study in China instead of implementing merit based selection criteria. This in turn prevents many scholarships originally intended for under-privileged students from reaching their proper recipients.


"I instituted the racket that killed my son" - an anti-corruption awareness billboard in Ivory Coast | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


In 2009, Namibia was rocked by a scandal surrounding the allocation of Chinese scholarships. Namibian investigators discovered that government elites were hoarding scholarship opportunities meant for poorer students for their own children. While country’s main independent newspaper - The Namibian - called for an inquiry into the matter in 2013, there is little evidence to suggest that the practice has ceased.

At the heart of the matter is that the ‘politics of the belly’ - i.e. the patronage networks - which operate in many African countries dovetail nicely with the Chinese notion of guanxi: the system of social networks and influential relationships which facilitate business and political dealings via personal ties, favours and hierarchies.

Guanxi is central to the thinking of Chinese actors in Africa, yet unfortunately it helps perpetuate the kind of nepotism that undermines civil society and transparency across the continent. Unfortunately, angry citizens seeking accountability are hamstrung by the habits of Chinese diplomats, many of whom view scholarships as incentives to secure cooperation from African elites. One researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity to The Guardian claims that “the traditional mindset among some Chinese officials is that they still think the most important things is to leave enough quota, enough scholarships, to give to special persons, the elites.”

The Bottom Line

China’s impact on resource extraction and infrastructure in Africa is well documented, but it is important to note that Beijing’s influence on the continent extends far beyond these fields. Specifically, China is increasingly working to position itself as the destination of choice for African international students. Partly an effort to diversify its economy, and partly an extension of its hearts and minds campaign, China’s education sector is following the government;s lead by targetting the substantial promise of Africa’s youth.

The bevy of scholarships from the Chinese government down through to cultural institutions and businesses aimed at African students continues to rapidly expand. In recent years, China has leapfrogged traditional destinations in the West - notably the UK and United States - to become the second most popular destination for African international students. This rapid growth has been facilitated by generous scholarship programs combined with a increasingly cosmopolitan outlook among Chinese universities.


Rising tuition costs and the rise of nativist political trends in the United States - a traditional leader in international education - in particular has worked to dissuade many African international students from studying there. In contrast, China offers a less costly alternative, as well as the opportunity to become familiar with the inner workings of Africa’s largest international partner.

Nevertheless, concerns about inconsistent teaching standards, the shortage of English-language instructors and government interference have marred the experiences of some Africans studying in China. Finally, the lack of a coherent system for the distribution of scholarships needs to be rectified if China wants to stop enabling the patronage networks which are the bane of citizens across Africa.

Title image taken in Beijing by Philip Jägenstedt

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.