Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

The Declining Value of a Chinese Education in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz students are discovering that a Chinese diploma isn’t a fast track to a high-paying job.

The Declining Value of a Chinese Education in Kyrgyzstan
Credit: Flickr

Exposing the consequences of stringent COVID-19 restrictions. hundreds of demonstrations flared across China late last month. The social unrest is especially demonstrative of the younger Chinese generation’s discontent with the existing authoritarian regime. Repeated imposed lockdowns pushed youth unemployment higher, generating significant uncertainty about future prospects.

Similar concerns about job prospects also nag Kyrgyz graduates with Chinese diplomas. In late August 2022, the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan announced that it would resume issuing visas for students after a prolonged cessation due to quarantine restrictions for entry to China. This was followed by an announcement that the Pursuing the Chinese Dream Scholarship Program would be accepting applications from outstanding Kyrgyz high school graduates for the opportunity to complete undergraduate studies in a Chinese university.

A fully funded Chinese education is a very attractive opportunity for working-class Kyrgyz families. However, conversations with the growing community of Chinese-educated Kyrgyz reveal that opportunities to study in China do not necessarily translate into future success. Rather than finding opportunities to ride the Chinese economic boom, Kyrgyz instead find themselves having to retrain.

After being politically isolated for decades, China has become one of the most popular destinations for international students in the last decade. The Chinese government encouraged this by offering lavish scholarship programs to attract overseas students. Having been offered the opportunity to receive education at higher-ranked universities in China via available scholarships, lowered admission standards, and affordable visa fees, Kyrgyz students were no exception to this trend. For them, the attraction of learning the Chinese language and building a connection with the world’s second largest economy — one with which their nation shares a border — is attractive.

The number of Kyrgyz students enrolled in Chinese universities between 2000-2017 exceeded 22,000 with 4,000 registered receiving education in Chinese higher education institutions in 2020 alone. The EU’s program Erasmus+, in comparison, supported 800 Kyrgyz students between 2015-2020.  Russia, meanwhile, remains the top destination for Kyrgyz students to study abroad, with over 15,000 enrolled in 2020.

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Kyrgyz students who have studied in China often return home as “zhongguo tong” (中国通), a Chinese term given to foreigners and often translated as “China hand,” to a varying extent by completing a Chinese language program and earning bachelor’s, master’s, or even Ph.D. degrees. Graduates from Chinese institutions (as with graduates elsewhere) nostalgically reminisce about their experience in China. Whether they studied in Shanghai, Beijing, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Xi’an, Guangzhou, or Haikou, these alumni share being stimulated by the higher quality education environment in China compared to their experiences in Kyrgyzstan, while engaging with students from all over the world and traveling across China.

Graduates spoken to during the course of my research said that the introduction to Chinese culture and traditions in China itself made it easier to master the language. And on top of that, taking classes together with representatives of different countries and communities, according to graduates, contributed to breaking negative stereotypes they may have believed before. Some, for instance, spoke of interacting with the LGBT community for the first time.

“In China, we experienced great foreign education experience being part of a diverse international community,” one told me. In general, these graduates spoke positively of being exposed to a more socially diverse environment than at home.

Most of these graduates had certain expectations about the impact of pursing an education in China, from learning the language to expanding their opportunities in the labor market to making it easier to pursue a career in public affairs and diplomacy. In reality, they faced a number of challenges and obstacles when seeking promising, well-paid positions after returning home.

After studying in China, many believed they would be in high demand for interpreting positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese Embassy, or teaching jobs at universities. “However, in reality, it turned out there is a lot of paperwork and not competitive wages,” said one International Education graduate from a Shanghai-based university, who recently retrained in Bishkek to become a UI/UX designer after giving up pursuing jobs in a China-related field.

Although Kyrgyzstan is in a vulnerable economic position with an average monthly salary of 23,939 Kyrgyz som ($282) — 28,981 Kyrgyz som ($341) in Bishkek — there are growing job opportunities with better pay within various international organizations, big business, and the IT sector. These are the most attractive jobs available at present, but graduates from Chinese universities find themselves in most cases unable to compete for these positions.

A language program graduate from a school in Xi’an, who formerly worked as a Russian-Chinese interpreter, reflected: “They [referring to specialists with Chinese education] mostly work either as translators or run businesses: importing Chinese goods or working for the local Chinese companies. Both Kyrgyzstan and China train specialists simply with knowledge of the Chinese language, but without in-depth knowledge of Chinese context, i.e. Sinologists to be able to work in the field of public service or diplomacy.”      

The qualifications offered by Chinese institutions are often focused on language without necessarily including the cultural context or some other technical qualification, which would help graduates pursue positions beyond being an interpreter.

Moreover, business alumni from Beijing and Shanghai who enjoyed their experience living as foreign students resented being given a simplified study curriculum specifically for foreigners, compared to similar classes they had taken with Chinese students. This was not an exception. All Chinese programs offer different classes for foreign versus domestic students. And the quality is notably different.      

“If you compare Chinese students with us [foreign students], then we were somehow belittled. They would not give us the same information that was given to Chinese students,” one graduate explained.

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A financial engineering and applied mathematics graduate remembers the first year of his Bachelor of Science program studying together with Chinese students as a unique case. In the Chinese education system, local Chinese and foreign students usually attend separate classes. Considering the different curriculum quality, he believed the joint classes were beneficial for him as a foreign student.

Chinese diplomas, or even more so, the experience of living in China certainly increased the appeal of these graduates as employees for Chinese companies and schools in interpreting an teaching roles. Most of the graduates I spoke with mentioned interpreting opportunities circulated among Chinese speakers via mutual connections and WeChat groups, but said that the jobs were unstable and underpaid. Teaching jobs might offer stability and professional growth, but with an average monthly starting salary of 9,000 som ($106) in state schools, and 30,000 som ($353) in private schools, these graduates hardly feel motivated to hold onto such a career.

The Chinese-related business sector – logistical, mining, and other industrial companies – is regarded as the best option for someone with educational and living experience in China, with relatively better monthly pay of 30,000 – 50,000 som ($353-$588) and further professional growth as a product/project manager.

Apart from being confronted with limited choices of desirable jobs at home, China’s pre-pandemic law prohibiting foreign students from working while studying in mainland China reduced Kyrgyz students’ competitiveness compared to those who trained abroad elsewhere or even at home, where they were allowed to gain more experience via part-time work and expansion of professional networks while they studied. Contrary to the expectations of having an advantage after pursing a foreign education, a lot of these students find their CVs limited to a study curriculum with an illegal employment record, if any, upon graduation.      

“If there is a choice between a candidate with experience without any foreign education and without experience but with a foreign diploma, the choice will fall on the former,” one graduate explained.

The Ministry of Education in China granted foreign students permission to work 40 hours per month only in late 2021. Although this could positively change currently enrolled students’ post-graduation experience, most of them are still studying online and unable to enter China under the zero-COVID policy restrictions and due to expensive travel costs.

Despite acknowledging the importance of soft skills and work experience for getting competitive positions, there is also a shared concern about the poor perception of a Chinese diploma by local and international organizations outside of the China-related field. Driven by financial needs and lack of secure, well-paid vacancies, a lot of young graduates with little work experience take on several jobs in the service sector, sometimes outside of Kyrgyzstan. For instance, providing cash services for Chinese-speaking clients in the Arabian Gulf has become a new opportunity showing up on Kyrgyz job boards. These jobs are often seen as a temporary income opportunity while also thinking of alternative expertise training over time. Having faced such challenges, many Kyrgyz graduates with a Chinese degree feel that there is no use for their diploma in Kyrgyzstan.

China’s closed borders — a product of its zero-COVID policy — triggered a decline in trade and cultural exchange between China and Kyrgyzstan and also served to undermine China’s attractiveness as an educational destination. China’s soft power push in Kyrgyzstan is failing. Although studying in China was once seen as a ticket to self-growth and a successful career, a free Chinese education is not everything many young Kyrgyz thought it would be.