August is a special month in Uzbekistan filled with anxiety, stress, joy, and disappointments. The country’s youth sit for university entrance exams early in the month and by its end hear whether they are university-bound. This August, calls to apply to universities in China to study undergraduate and graduate degrees with full and partial scholarships became more prominent. Branches of several Chinese universities are slated to open in Uzbekistan and various faculty cooperation programs are already underway. But earning a ticket to study in China is the most desirable and prestigious option.
Studying abroad, including in China, is an appealing opportunity for those in Uzbekistan because approximately only one in 10 university applicants will be awarded the privilege to become a student. This unnecessary high competition is due to the fact that in 1991, the government of Uzbekistan set a ceiling for enrollment at 60,000. This has remained unchanged and without adjustment to the population growth since. In 2010, for example, there were over 400,000 applicants for the 60,000 seats at Uzbek universities.
Riding the wave of openness and greater cooperation, China has stepped in to tap into the pool of young Uzbekistan talents. The most prominent organization in the field is China Campus Network Uzbekistan (CCN), a consortium of 28 Chinese universities that on August 23 announced additional places in its program. CCN has country offices in African and other Asian countries and, like the United States’ now defunct Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program once did (the names lives on in a different program now), opens opportunities and scholarships to study. Unlike the American program though, CCN commits to rigorously teach the Chinese language prior the program and assists with employment following graduation in leading Chinese companies such as Huawei and Alibaba.
While CCN is the largest program of its kind and the only one to sign a memorandum of understand with the Ministry of Education in Uzbekistan, there are a number of smaller organizations that similarly provide guidance and assistance in applying to Chinese universities. They also promise full or partial scholarships at China’s top universities and employment following the program.
The emergence of programs that assist in placement in China’s universities and the popularity of them is propelled by stories of young Uzbeks who recently graduated from Chinese universities. Their stories are usually filled with positive experiences, such as China turning out to be far more developed than they expected and the academic programs in China turning out to be rigorous.
China’s recent forays into the education system of Uzbekistan, compared to its economic activities, are belated but correlate with China’s recent strides to play a greater role in global affairs. China paid little attention to promoting its soft power in Central Asia for many years. Therefore, the dominant perception of Chinese in Central Asia range from indifference to negative, mostly derived from economic issues and experiences. Individual success stories and promises of scholarships and employment opportunities matter greatly to the youth in Uzbekistan. These narratives undoubtedly have begun to shatter negative perceptions of China and conjure the same level of “coolness” as studying in Western universities.
China is ready to capitalize on education as a significant soft power tool that can perhaps sway the region toward a positive perception of China. At this particular moment in time, that may be an initiative of great import given the linguistic and cultural linkages between the Uyghurs and other Central Asian populations. Nothing can be more effective and powerful than providing free education in order to align a young generation in a foreign country ideologically.