FOR more than a decade, Confucius institutes (CIs) have played an important role in promoting Chinese language education and cultural exchanges, as well as improving educational quality in Cambodian higher education institutions (HEIs). There are currently four major Confucius institutes in Cambodia. 

First, on December 22, 2009, Jiujiang University co-founded the Confucius Institute of the Royal Academy of Cambodia (CIRAC), with Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiling the first such institute during his visit to Phnom Penh. CIRAC is under the supervision of the Council of Ministers. 

Second, on December 26, 2019, Guilin University of Electronic Technology and the National University of Battambang (NUBB) formed the Confucius Institute of NUBB (CINUBB). It is under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. 

Third, in November 2022, Nanjing Vocational University of Industry Technology and the Federation of Khmer Chinese in Cambodia founded the Confucius Institute of the Cambodian University of Technology and Science (CICamTech), also under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport. 

Fourth, on June 4, 2020, Hainan University and the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) collaborated to establish the Confucius Institute of RUA (CIRUA). It is under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. 

Besides CIs, there are Chinese HEIs established in Cambodia, including the Lanmei University of Cambodia and the Cambodia-China University of Technology and Science. 

China is fostering a scientific community in Cambodia by supporting higher education in science, technology, and information and communications technology (ICT). This so-called STEM diplomacy reflects the characteristics of Chinese cooperation and contributes to the debate over China’s international development model and rising role as a global leader.

Moreover, On April 25, 2018, then-Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen and former Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Xiong Bo jointly established the Kratie University at a cost of $12 million, with $10 million coming from the Chinese government and the rest from the “Kratie Foundation for Higher Education Organisation”.

According to the 2023 Southeast Asia Confucius Institutes Joint Conference report, there are 62 CIs (classrooms) in Southeast Asia as of July 2023, with Thailand having the most at 23 – the highest number in ASEAN.

The size of the Chinese diaspora population and the perception that China’s economic influence provides Mandarin speakers with more job opportunities are the most obvious reasons why Mandarin language learning has grown in popularity in ASEAN rather than the West.

Southeast Asia is home to approximately 30 million of the estimated 40 million ethnic Chinese diaspora. 

While CIs are lauded for their contributions to education and cultural exchange, they have also been criticised in several countries for concerns about academic freedom, propaganda and influence operations. Actually, the perception and impact of these institutes vary greatly from one country to another.

Cambodia, on the other hand, can benefit from the establishment of CIs that can provide Chinese language education to students in order to increase employment opportunities and stimulate economic growth in Cambodia.

The Confucius Institute, a non-profit public educational organisation affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, is a key player in promoting Chinese language education and cultural exchange in Cambodian HEIs.

The Centre for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) and the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF) provide technical and financial support for CIs around the world. 

The Confucius Institute plays significant seven roles.

First, CIs in Cambodia primarily teach Chinese. They offer a wide range of classes, from beginner to advanced, led by certified and experienced Chinese language instructors. This not only helps Cambodian students learn a new language, but it also prepares them for careers in business and diplomacy, where Chinese language proficiency is increasingly valued. 

Second, in addition to teaching students, these institutes frequently train Cambodian Chinese language teachers. This contributes to developing a long-term model for Chinese language education in the country. 

Third, CIs organise and facilitate various cultural exchange programmes. These may include Chinese cultural festivals, art exhibitions, music and dance performances, and other events that showcase Chinese culture. Such events help enhance mutual understanding and cultural exchange between China and Cambodia.

Fourth, they provide educational resources like books, journals, and electronic materials to support Chinese language education. Moreover, they may offer scholarships or funding opportunities for Cambodian students to study in China, thereby fostering educational exchanges.

Fifth, some CIs engage in academic and research collaboration between Cambodian and Chinese HEIs. This includes joint research projects, conferences, seminars, and the exchange of academic staff and scholars.

Sixth, by serving as a bridge between Chinese and Cambodian educational institutions, CIs facilitate broader international collaboration and partnership in higher education.

Finally, through various programmes and seminars, CIs provide insights into Chinese policies, economic development and societal changes, which is crucial for countries like Cambodia that have strong economic and diplomatic ties with China.

Over the past four years, the Confucius Institute has organised 160 cultural exchange activities and provided opportunities for Chinese language learners in Cambodia to showcase their talents. 

These activities have served as a link between international Chinese language education in northwestern Cambodia and China, fostering cultural exchanges and promoting friendship between our two nations. National and international media both report on these activities. 

In terms of educational exchanges between China and Cambodia, the Confucius Institute is dedicated to enhancing Cambodia’s national education system through the exchange of knowledge and technology. 

On November 9, 2022, Cambodia’s Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Hang Chuon Naron and Chinese ambassador Wang Wentian signed a memorandum of understanding to pilot Chinese courses in some public schools, with implementation scheduled from 2023 onwards. 

On January 15, 2024, the National Institute of Education trained 100 Cambodian teachers who will teach Chinese in Cambodian public schools. As part of the first phase, 20 public secondary schools are now teaching Chinese. More than 100 of Cambodian educational institutions have trained more than 100,000 students in the Chinese language, according to the statement of Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport. 

The CINUBB has provided Chinese-language education for more than 6,165 students, not only in Battambang but also in neighbouring Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces, as well as in Phnom Penh.

The CINUBB will contribute to the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). In the future, it will integrate Chinese with other related majors to boost students’ employment prospects and improve their labour skills. 

In February 2023, Samdech Techo Hun Sen and President Xi Jinping signed an agreement on Cambodia-China relations and cooperation, including (1) the launch of the “Diamond Cooperation” and (2) the establishment of the “Industrial and Technological Corridor” and “Fish and Rice Corridor.”

Samdech Thipadei Hun Manet and Chinese leaders, especially President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang, exchanged views on propelling the Year of People-to-People Exchange in 2024 into a productive year with concrete outcomes by attracting additional Chinese tourists and more direct flights from China to Cambodia, particularly Siem Reap. 

The Fish and Rice Corridor initiative aims to enhance agricultural trade between the two countries, focusing on products like fish, rice, tropical fruits, vegetables, and various agricultural inputs including fertilisers, pesticides, and animal feed in northwestern Cambodia, particularly in the Tonle Sap Lake area, to develop modern ecological agriculture near Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake by surface area. 

On March 14, 2023, the government led by Samdech Techo Hun Sen designated four provinces – Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Pailin – as Cambodia’s fourth economic pole. 

Cambodia recorded 5.4 million international tourists, including some 540,000 Chinese tourists, in 2023. According to the Ministry of Tourism, China was the biggest source of international tourist arrivals to Cambodia in the pre-pandemic era.

The kingdom received 2.36 million Chinese tourists in 2019, accounting for 35.7 per cent of the total international tourist arrivals and generating about $1.8 billion in revenue. 

I strongly believe that CIs will continue to contribute to providing quality Chinese language education for Cambodians and to serve as a bridge to facilitate cultural and people-to-people exchanges for mutual benefits and Cambodia’s economic growth, not only in northwestern Cambodia but the whole country. 

Sam Rany is vice-rector of the National University of Battambang (NUBB) and co-director of the Confucius Institute of NUBB (CINUBB).

The views expressed in this article are solely his own.