Middle-class Pakistani students set sights on Chinese education and jobs

Some drawn by prospect of job with a Chinese firm, others by study in China, where they get a warm welcome, in contrast to the West since 9/11

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 5:21am


When Misbah Rashid taught Chinese 30 years ago, few signed up. Today his department has more than 200 Pakistani students, increasingly attracted by the prospect of an affordable education and a job.

For decades, a foreign education was the preserve of the richest who could afford the stratospheric cost of sending their progeny to Oxford or Harvard to mingle with an international Westernised elite.

But Rashid's pupils are mostly middle class. Ambitious and academic, they lack the means to afford an American or British education and so they sign up for Putonghua at the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad.

Some of them hope to get a job with a Chinese firm in Pakistan. Others will go on to further studies in China, which offers around 500 scholarships a year and low fees.

A course in China costs a few thousand dollars a year, compared with the tens of thousands of dollars United States and British universities charge. What is more, some Pakistanis say their great northeastern neighbour makes them feel more welcome.

"Nowadays as Pakistanis, you may not be as welcome in all other countries as we were a few years ago," said Ali Rafi, 18, who applied to study economics at Shandong University after visiting last summer.

"But when we went to China, there was one major difference in that we felt at home, the people relations were really, really good. We were always welcomed, honoured and everyone was really pleased when they learnt we were Pakistani."

He studies at City School, one of the private schools in Islamabad that has started to offer Putonghua lessons to children as young as 12, who sing in Putonghua under the watchful eye of their teacher, Zhang Haiwei.

If everything goes well, the classes will be rolled out across the school's other 200 branches in Pakistan. And other private schools are doing the same.

Pakistanis complain about the difficulty of getting visas and of the suspicion their nationality can arouse among those who associate Pakistan with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly in Britain and the US.

The British government says that overall, 20 per cent fewer student visas were issued last year, compared to 2011.

The independent Institute of International Education says 5,045 students from Pakistan studied in the US in 2010 to 2011, but that the number has declined steadily since 2001 to 2002, the academic year of the 9/11 attacks.

There is also considerable resentment of US policy, including the "covert" use of armed drones to attack militants in Pakistan, whereas Chinese investment, China's reluctance to admonish Pakistan in public, its rivalry with India and status as an emerging global superpower give it considerable goodwill.

Pakistan's main trading partner is still the European Union, but trade with China reached US$12 billion last year, up 18 per cent from 2011.

China is also Pakistan's main arms supplier. Beijing built two nuclear power plants in Pakistan and is contracted to construct two more reactors. There are an estimated 10,000 Chinese living in Pakistan.

Last month, it also took control of Pakistan's strategic port of Gwadar, which via an extension of the Karakoram Highway could connect China to the Arabian Sea and Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world's traded oil.

According to Pakistan's embassy in Beijing, around 8,000 Pakistani students are already studying in China and thousands more are preparing to join them.

Former ambassador to Beijing and Washington Riaz Khokar said wealthy Pakistanis tend not to return after studying in the West, but China offers a technical education that will benefit Pakistan's economy.

"The Chinese economic presence in Pakistan is growing, so why should there be Chinese managers or Chinese at various levels? The idea was [that] we should train," he said.