Cash-strapped universities in Guilin are turning to free-spending foreign tourists in the scenic southwestern city to supplement their income.
At Guangxi Teachers' College, tour buses drive past the well-preserved 500-year-old buildings that served as a southern retreat for Ming dynasty emperors and head to a modern building on the edge of the campus where major credit cards are accepted.
Inside, the walls are covered with the work of professors from the university's art department. Misty water-colour scrolls of Guilin's distinctive mountain scenery, priced as high as 10,000 yuan (HK$9,360), can be bought.
The shop is staffed by art department students. University officials and students are equally coy about the profit-sharing arrangements between artists and university, but a student salesman said earnings were split fairly and were a boon to the school.
'Chinese universities always have trouble earning enough money, and ours is no exception, so instead of charging students higher fees, our school has decided to go into business selling artwork,' he said.
Far from pushy, the student sales staff is quick to reveal that posted prices can be readily halved, but more aggressive are the tour guides who bring buses of tourists to the university who earn commission on sales. The salesman said the arrangement also benefitted tourists.
He said: 'These are the sort of classical Chinese paintings that people all over the world have seen, and they feel much more comfortable buying artwork from an established university rather than from hotel gift shops or outdoor markets.' The nearby Guilin Medical College's Traditional Chinese Medical Centre also supplements its income by selling to tourists.
Inside the clinic, tourists are seated in a conference hall where a doctor introduces, in impressive English, the principles and benefits of many 'rare and famous' Chinese treatments.
Then a qi gong master takes the stage to show how, by concentrating his vital energy, he is able to harmlessly run a 220-volt electrical current through his body.
Then comes the hard sell. Pills and tonics for skin problems, rheumatism, sexual disfunction, diabetes, haemorrhoids, and other ailments are offered for sale.
Other remedies promise help in losing weight or giving up smoking.
Dr Pan Chao, director of the centre, said the clinic started its sideline business in 1992, when market-oriented reforms compelled universities to rely less on state funding and meet more of their own financial needs.
'It takes up a lot of my time, but it does not keep me from doing my clinical work and research,' Dr Pan said.
He declined to reveal the university's take from this trade, but describes the venture as 'quite successful'.
The need for schools across China to continue earning revenue shows no sign of abating. A report by Xinhua (the New China News Agency) this month said the shift away from full state support of higher education had led nearly two-thirds of China's 1,000 colleges and universities to charge students fees. Until 1994, college education was free.
The flow of tourists into Guilin does not seem set to slow. On October 2, it opened its new airport, costing 1.85 billion yuan. The Liangjiang airport will be capable of bringing five million tourists to the city each year.
Tourism is an important part of Guilin's economy and that of the Guangxi region. More than five per cent of Guangxi's gross domestic product will derive from it by the end of the century, tourism officials predict.
By the year 2000, Guangxi's tourist revenue is expected to exceed 11 billion yuan annually.