At 7.15 every morning, Professor Wen Shuming and eight Chinese colleagues share a breakfast prepared by two local maids, who have been taught how to cater to the tastes of alien educators.
The group then leave their shared home and head for the office: two tube-shaped rooms with bare walls and fluorescent lights in a one-storey building on a busy road, next to a cash machine, a sportswear store and a deserted private school.
They are employed by Soochow University, but this office isn’t in Jiangsu province, nor even in China. It is on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Wen’s life is about to get a lot busier. After years of preparation and lobbying, the university campus he has been setting up will open its doors to undergraduate students in a couple of weeks. Little has been made of the undertaking, but as well as being Laos’ first foreign campus, it marks the first time a Chinese university (as opposed to the government-linked Confucius Institute) has opened a branch abroad.
One of two billboards at the gate of Vientiane airport advertises the university. The other one promotes the Vientiane Industrial and Trade Park (known locally as Vita Park), the free-trade zone to which the campus is scheduled to move next year.
Wen’s campus – which currently inhabits eight classrooms behind his office, rented from Kavin College, the deserted private school – is one of many signs that Laos’ neighbours are recognising the potential of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member. The country, with a population of seven million, is widely expected to join the World Trade Organisation this year, 15 years after applying for membership. On August 30, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming reiterated Beijing’s “firm support” for that accession.
Several special economic zones with tax exemptions are in the works or are already in operation. Their purpose is to bring in investment and manufacturing jobs to a country that has, until now, been of little interest to anyone other than Chinese gamblers and tourists looking for the “Thailand as it used to be” experience.
It’s not only the neighbours that have had their eye on the country. Hillary Clinton’s visit to Laos in July was the first by a United States secretary of state in 57 years. Along with Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is a founding member of the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative, which was established in 2009 to enhance co-operation in the areas of environment, health, education and infrastructure development. In May, a Buddhist monk blessed the site where a new US embassy compound is being built, on the outskirts of Vientiane.
The mainland, though, is expected to be the main long-term partner in Laos’ development, and has been mending ties with its southern neighbour, home to a considerable ethnic Chinese population. Bilateral trade increased 66.8 per cent last year, according to Laotian Ministry of Industry and Commerce figures. Much of that trade passes up and down the Mekong and, last month, a joint patrol outpost was set up in Muang Meung, Bokeo province, to help combat on-river piracy. Bokeo borders Thailand and Myanmar and is close to where 13 Chinese sailors were murdered by a drug gang just under a year ago.
Chinese state-owned companies are building roads, bridges and the sleepy capital’s first skyscraper, and they are upgrading the country’s two largest airports. This month, Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie stopped over in Laos on a trip from India to discuss bilateral military ties and inspect the construction site of a Chinesebuilt commercial centre.
“There is nothing to do here, just the temples, that’s it,” says Wen, sitting in his barren office. He has been in Laos for a year. “This country should work to advance its culture.” The unassuming middle-aged man has the air of an isolated colonial official. He doesn’t speak Lao.
“I hadn’t heard much about this country before coming here,” he says. “We just knew it was poor and there were infectious diseases. But to be honest, we expected Laos to be worse.
“We believe that Laos can rid itself of its poverty by 2020,” he says, referring to the year in which the Laotian government has said it aims to leave the United Nation’s list of least developed nations.
Soochow University plans to invest US$50 million in its Laotian branch, Wen says, double the sum stated last year, when the mainland’s state-run news agency Xinhua first reported the project. The investment equals a fifth of the entire education expenditure of the Southeast Asian nation in 2010, according to the most recent World Bank figures available. That year, Laos spent US$240 million, or 3.3 per cent of its gross domestic product, on education.
Wen and his staff, which includes three locals, have been busy trying to recruit students, by advertising in newspapers, on billboards, in handout brochures and through a one-minute advertisement aired daily on national television.
“Soochow University in Laos: your first choice of university study with the shortcut for the overseas study in China,” an ad in the Englishlanguage Vientiane Times reads.
Construction of the Vita Park campus should get underway next month, says Wen, but the university’s ambitions do not end there.
Last week, the university signed a 50-year concession agreement for 23 hectares of land in Xiengda village, six kilometres outside Vientiane, on which to build a much larger campus. Eventually, the university plans to have 5,000 students enrolled in its two campuses, studying, among other courses, economics, management, law, computer science, railway transportation, electronic communication and various technical subjects consistent with economic and social development. The university is also planning to set up a training hospital.
“It’s all still jungle, this is still a faraway plan,” says his deputy, Chen Mei, after we leave Wen to his quiet office. Chen was a university lecturer in biochemistry in Shanghai before moving to Vientiane.
Until its two new campuses are anything but building sites, though, the university must make do with its temporary accommodation. It has already begun teaching Chinese language courses to 120 students, but its undergraduate offerings are not yet proving popular. The plan was to have 100 students, half studying international economics and trade the other half international finance, beginning in mid-October, but so far only 30 have enrolled.
“Many Chinese are coming to Laos,” says would-be student Noy Amonyadeth, after signing up to take the admission exam. “If I can speak Chinese, it’ll be easier to find a job.” Dressed in the traditional long gown, or sinh, Noy says she already has an undergraduate degree and is only interested in the language training provided by the campus.
Another prospective student, Air, 18, says she has just finished middle school and her father is Chinese. She is interested in the university’s language course because she wants to be able to speak with him in his native tongue.
The university has had to hire local teachers to lead political classes – required teaching in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a singleparty authoritarian state.
“We don’t teach them Marxism and Mao Zedong thought – here we have to teach them the local stuff,” says Chen. However, textbooks – the library has a book on China’s “socialist market economy” on display – will initially be copied from Chinese versions, he adds.
Wen says the Vientiane campus is being set up as a public service and he doesn’t expect the university – which is keen to become internationally renowned – to profit financially from it. Nevertheless, studying here isn’t a cheap undertaking. The fee to take one of the two initial degree programmes is US$1,500 per year. After at least one year of study in Vientiane, students will be sent to Suzhou, where their education will cost US$2,600 a year for at least two years. Undergraduate programmes last at least four years.
The fees are considered steep in a country that, according to the International Monetary Fund, had a per capita income of about US$1,200 last year, the second-lowest of the Asean members, after Myanmar.
In theory, the 10 students who do best in the entrance exam will win a year-long scholarship, says Chen, adding that these grants will be renewed if the individuals continue to excel.
“We had officials show up and ask for their children to be admitted and be given scholarships,” she says, with thinly veiled scorn. “There is nothing we can do about it – even at the ministry they tell us who we should grant scholarships to.”
Despite the apparent benefits, Laotian authorities have not been overly enthusiastic about the project, says Wen: “National leaders want to realise this project, but lower-level officials are hesitant.”
In December 2007, the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission announced it had approved an agreement with Laos on the construction of New Vientiane, a modern district with a university to be designed and built by the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park. Built on Singaporean experience, the park had driven Suzhou’s modernisation a decade earlier. As plans for the larger New Vientiane stalled, university officials continued to lobby for their part of the project.
Laos approved the development in January 2009 and, in 2010, university president Zhu Xiulin conferred honorary doctorates on Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone and the then prime minister Bouasone Bouphavanh. The Chinese Ministry of Education approved the project in June last year but Laotian authorities only issued the university a permit to teach in July this year.
The campus has not yet been granted official university status and is registered as a limited company, says Wen. Its business licence and a poster of the Laotian government are the only things that hang on the whitewashed walls of Wen’s temporary office.
Asked whether the university is having difficulty recruiting lecturers from Suzhou, he sighs: “Many people don’t want to come, they don’t know anything about this land.”
CAMPUS STORIES: DEGREES OF SEPARATION
There are two Soochow universities: one in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, the other in Taipei, Taiwan. Both have roots in the Soochow University founded by American Methodists in Suzhou (pinyin for Soochow) in 1900, which was a merger of the city's Buffington Institute and Kung Hang School with Shanghai's Anglo-Chinese College. Soochow University was China's first private Western institution of higher learning.
During its first 26 years, the university was led consecutively by three Americans - David Anderson, John Cline and W.B. Nance - who oversaw the construction of classroom buildings and dormitories, and the establishment of schools and departments. The university motto was "Unto a Full Grown Man".
The May Fourth Movement in 1919 saw the university undergo nationalisation and religion became a non-compulsory course in 1926. By this time, the majority of the board of directors were local and, in 1927, Yang Yongqing was elected the first Chinese president of the university.
During the eight-year Japanese occupation of China, the university moved to inner provinces to continue teaching. In 1945, students and teachers returned to rebuild their war-torn campuses in Suzhou and Shanghai.
In 1951, members of the Soochow Alumni Association who had fled to Taiwan in the wake of the communist takeover of the mainland established an institution in Taipei. A law school was opened in 1954 and certification as a full university was achieved in 1971. Today, it is considered one of the best private universities in Taiwan.
On the mainland, Soochow University was split in 1952, when the Law School and the Accounting Department, on the Shanghai campus, were transferred to two local universities. In Suzhou, the School of Arts and Science was merged into a local college. In 1982, that college was renamed Soochow University. In the following years, the university expanded to subsume other local colleges. Today, it has 20 colleges spread over six campuses. Located in a city known for its classic gardens, its main campus is often described as China's most beautiful.
At present, the mainland university has more than 50,000 students, including at least 1,300 from overseas. Hannah Xu