China Daily/ANN: Students from Asean member countries learn lessons in friendship at colleges in China’s southwest. When he applied for scholarships for overseas study as a 19-year-old high school graduate in Cambodia with an interest in computers, Heng Piseth never thought he would one day study in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
“Computers were still a luxury in Cambodia in 2010, so I was eager for a chance to study the major abroad, but my family could not afford it,” he said.
In 2011, the government of Guangxi started awarding scholarships to students from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members, which offered Heng Piseth more opportunities.
He was one of 6,947 students from Asean members who were awarded scholarships that year.
After being accepted by Guangxi University for Nationalities in Nanning, the regional capital, Heng Piseth became a freshman majoring in software engineering.
“The years I spent there were very worthwhile because I learned new skills, made many Chinese friends who left a good impression on me and I also learned a lot from them,” he said in fluent Mandarin.
After graduation, he returned to Cambodia and now is a technical manager at Nice TV, the country’s first Chinese-invested television channel, making full use of his computing and language skills.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the strategic partnership between China and Asean, and China has said it always regards the bloc as the priority of its neighbourhood diplomacy.
In 2016, Premier Li Keqiang proposed that people-to-people exchanges become the third pillar of China-Asean cooperation, after political security and economic and trade cooperation.
According to the Foreign Ministry, nearly 100,000 students from Asean members are studying in China, an eightfold increase from 2003.
Meanwhile, Guangxi Education Department statistics show that the number of Asean students in the region rose by about 10,000 every year from 2013 to last year.
“Most Asean graduates return to their home countries and become bridges for China-Asean friendship in all walks of life,” said Luo Yaoguang, director of the department’s external cooperation and exchanges division.
According to Luo, some graduates set up companies in their home countries and hire local people, “which is also a good thing for local economic development”.
Scott Wang, vice-president of the World Trade Centers Association, an organisation in the US that promotes trade and development across the world, said: “Talent training is an important part of China-Asean cooperation when Chinese enterprises such as e-commerce giant Alibaba are entering the markets of Southeast Asian countries.”
As an example, he spoke of how a translator who speaks Mandarin, Indonesian and English facilitated a Chinese company’s communications with local partners in Indonesia.
“Business is not an isolated thing. Instead, it is a kind of interaction between people,” he said, noting that Asean graduates can use what they have learned in China to play a role in their own countries.
By contrast, Melody Tan, a 25-year-old Malaysian who graduated from Guangxi Arts University in July, has decided to stay in China and explore more opportunities for her entertainment career.
Encouraged by her family, especially her father, she applied to the Guangxi government for a scholarship that would give her the opportunity to study pop music vocal performance in a professional, systematic manner. At the time, she was a sophomore in New Zealand.
“China’s entertainment and music industries are relatively mature, which could provide more opportunities for me,” she said.
Indeed, opportunities have already arisen.
Tan became known to both Chinese and Malaysian audiences during her junior year in 2014 after taking part in The Voice of China, a reality TV singing competition that featured very few foreign entrants.
“I think music is a very important element for cultural exchanges between different countries because it has no boundaries and can touch people,” she said.
She added that the scholarships provide a good opportunity for people who want to study overseas, but cannot afford to do so.
“It helps to broaden one’s horizons,” she said, although she conceded that she would have considered studying in China even without a scholarship.
According to Luo from the Guangxi Education Department, the regional government has provided 30 million yuan ($4.4 million) this year to finance scholarships for students from Asean countries.
“We hope the scholarships can be used as leverage to attract more Asean students to study in Guangxi, no matter whether for the short or long term,” he said, adding that the regional government is encouraging universities and businesses to establish their own scholarships aimed at Asean students.
After graduating from Guilin Medical University with a degree in clinical medicine this year, Nguyen Quoc Hoan, a 24-year-old from Vietnam, decided to pursue graduate studies for a master’s in orthopaedic surgery at his own expense.
Hoan had wanted to study medicine in China since his high school days, and to that end he studied Mandarin in Vietnam.
“China is a country with good development in a range of areas, and life here is very convenient. I’ve been in Guilin [in Guangxi] for six years and I love the city and the people,” he said. “I hope I can stay and work in Guilin when I complete my studies, although that won’t be easy.”
Vocational training provided by Chinese colleges for Asean students is providing a strong helping hand for Chinese businesses to go global.
Liuzhou City Vocational College in Guangxi is a pioneer in this regard.
In 2015, the college signed a cooperation agreement with SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co to jointly train talent for its base in Indonesia, a market that is dominated by Japanese automobile companies.
Indonesian students on the project spend two years studying Mandarin, Chinese culture – including calligraphy, painting and playing traditional musical instruments – and technical skills in Liuzhou. However, during the third year, they take up internships at the company’s Indonesian base.
Every student who completes the course is offered a job in Indonesia as a technician or manager.
“We have recruited more than 200 Indonesian students for this project, providing strong human resources support for the company’s Indonesian base,” said Wu Shuqin, vice-president of Liuzhou City Vocational College.
According to Wu, the graduates will feel a stronger sense of belonging as a result of the combined school and on-site education, and will also better meet company demands.
“Their knowledge of Chinese language and culture means they will also act as China-Indonesian communication bridges,” she said.
In July, the college accepted its first group of 49 foreign students from Laos under an agreement with the neighbouring country’s education department. The aim is to give a helping hand to boost industrialisation in Laos.
Song Yinghui, a researcher in Southeast Asian studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said the nature of relations between countries is exemplified by people-to-people exchanges, which are valued in bilateral and regional cooperation.
“Promoting youth exchanges between China and Asean members will lay a solid foundation for the future development of China-Asean relations because young people are a symbol of potential and the future,” she said.
According to Song, young people are especially important in Southeast Asian countries that have a youthful demographic profile.
The exchanges between young Chinese and Asean people in universities and colleges will also spark new ideas and perceptions that may have an impact on more people and communities, and could prompt a range of possibilities for the future, she added.