Chinese President Xi Jinping chose to visit Central Asia in the fall of 2022 for his first official trip abroad since the pandemic. A year later he hosted all five Central Asian leaders at a summit in Xi’an, China, reinforcing the sense of deepening relations between China and the region. In addition, Beijing marked the 10-year anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by signing numerous agreements with Central Asian countries, including investment and trade agreements worth $16.54 billion with Kazakhstan.
But beyond the headline figures, China’s growing engagement in the region is also influencing the lives of young people. The number of Central Asian students enrolled in Chinese universities between 2000-2017 surpassed 144,000, demonstrating China’s strong effect on Central Asian youth mobility.
Beijing’s 2015 “Visions and Actions” BRI policy document highlights the importance of academic exchanges in growing public support for developing bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The 2017 BRI blueprint further emphasized the importance of international cooperation in China’s higher education, supporting China’s goal to lead in higher education and science and technology by 2050. Just as Chinese investments in health and digital sectors are sometimes referred to as health and digital silk roads, international cooperation in education is sometimes called the “Educational Silk Road.”
Beijing promotes a better understanding of China by encouraging education in the Chinese language, both domestically through scholarships and internationally through institutions like Confucius Institutes. By 2023, a total of 13 Confucius institutes were located in Central Asia: five in Kazakhstan, four in Kyrgyzstan, and two each in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Diverse state-backed scholarships attract students to study in China – in 2018, nearly 14 percent of foreign students received PRC government scholarships. Study funding is also covered by various educational institutions and scholarship programs, including Chinese universities, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the World Academy of Sciences, in addition to the Confucius Institute Scholarship and Chinese Government Scholarship. Most of these programs are aimed at facilitating Chinese language learning.
This proliferation of programs and the attraction of studying Chinese has even created black markets in Central Asia. In some cases, students who were interviewed for this piece, commented that companies and individuals take Confucius Institute and other scholarship spots and “sell them to students” in Tashkent. In September 2023, the State Committee for National Security in Kyrgyzstan detained two deans from Kyrgyz National University (KNU) and Bishkek State University (BSU) for receiving a bribe of $900 from students for putting them on a list of scholarship recipients to study in China.
The students agree that this practice does not take place in Chinese universities. On the contrary, if foreign students don’t perform well academically, they are deprived of funding. A Fudan University graduate adds, “My university ranks somewhere in the top 50 worldwide and in the top 3 in China. It takes some good effort to graduate from Fudan University successfully. There was a case when a student was caught cheating during an exam in the first study year and his scholarship was taken away.”
Despite the prolonged COVID-19 lockdown in China, when students were unable to enter the country for three years to start or continue their studies, the country has since been able to largely restore the pre-COVID influx of students from Central Asia. CGTN reports that in 2023 the number of Uzbek students in China exceeded 8,000 in 2023, while 4,000 Tajik students enrolled in Chinese universities in 2023, and roughly 15,000 Kazakh students.
Why Do Young People Choose China for Their Studies?
For one Tashkent-based graduate, who spent seven years in China studying Chinese, doing both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the journey started with the idea that Chinese interpreters get paid very well. “My grandfather was working with a Chinese company, where an interpreter got paid $300 per working day in 2012. That’s a lot of money now, and back in 2012, it was even more. Nowadays, the cost of translation services is much lower due to there being more Chinese speakers.”
For others, going to China was an opportunity to build a network and start a business, as well as an opportunity to grow personally in an international environment.
Respondents uniformly confirm the quality of education in China being far superior to the quality of education in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan in terms of classroom equipment, administrative organization, and the presentation of knowledge. However, some Uzbek and Kyrgyz students reported that in the study program “history related to the Uyghurs’ history and movements are a taboo” and that “historical events are distorted in favor of China.”
Chinese education also plays an interesting role for female and queer students from Uzbekistan. Due to the patriarchal attitudes of Uzbek society, young women and queer people consider their stay in China to be particularly comfortable compared to home – “Study conditions and financial support serve as a great opportunity for young women to become more independent and have a better perception of their role in society,” one of the respondents said.
This financial support aligned with lower admission requirements means a Chinese education is easy to access for Central Asian youth seeking personal growth and pursuing career ambitions – even if some still critically assess PRC-led narratives in the study curriculum.
Despite Chinese education being superior in quality to local education, there is a difference in the experience of Uzbek students compared to Kyrgyz students when it comes to entering the labor market, with the latter having a bitter one.
While opportunities and wages are lower than expected in Kyrgyzstan, the common perception of interviewees in Uzbekistan is that “young people with a Chinese education do not sit idle – they get stable positions and a salary higher than the average.” This implies a range of occupations for Chinese-language graduates in Uzbekistan, from translating and interpreting to administrative roles and teaching. This can be linked to the large number of Chinese and/or China-funded enterprises operating in Uzbekistan, which reached 2,141 by the end of 2022.
A former employee of Huawei in Uzbekistan, one of the largest Chinese enterprises, shared his experience of successful employment and career growth in the company owing to a Chinese diploma: “I applied for the position of specialist in external logistics activities, however, I was immediately sent to the engineering department with subsequent transfer to the finance department.” Another respondent added that Chinese employers in Uzbekistan are more aware of the rankings of Chinese universities than Uzbek ones, putting the graduates from Chinese universities at an advantage.
In addition, the Uzbek government also provides practical support for young professionals with foreign diplomas. The state introduced a regulation that implies a monthly bonus for graduates from prestigious universities ranked within the top 500 worldwide.
While employment conditions welcome Chinese-speaking young professionals in Uzbekistan, Chinese-educated youth do not feel “confident and competitive” enough to break into the Chinese labor market upon graduation, despite their desire to stay and start a career in China. For many, this idea was also largely disrupted by the prolonged COVID-19 lockdown in China.
A Stepping Stone Abroad
For many, their experience in China opened them up to the possibility of living abroad elsewhere. “The experience in China opened my eyes to the possibilities of migration — you can live on your own,” adds a Shanghai-based university graduate. For young people, studying in China often makes their applications to study elsewhere more competitive.
For some respondents, their experience in China gave them a glimpse of a better quality of life. “Life quality in Uzbekistan is bad – it’s a very conservative society,” shares a respondent who decided to continue his studies in Germany and made a decision to permanently settle abroad. A few young women we spoke to shared similar concerns about existing gender discrimination in Central Asian societies that prioritize men, prompting them to stay in China or move further to Western countries.
The boom of young Chinese speakers in the region has also sparked a trend of relocation to the UAE for employment opportunities. Respondents with experience working in the UAE shared that there is demand for Chinese and Russian speaking employees in part due to numerous opportunities to assist Chinese-speaking tourists in malls and various shops. According to the ambassador of China to the UAE, the Chinese population in Dubai makes up 4 percent of the total population in the city, about 400,000 people.
However, some advertisements for relocation to Dubai are suspicious – Kyrgyz respondents based in Dubai confirmed that many of these offers are from illegal Chinese gambling companies, which hire young people from different countries who studied in China.
In contrast to years ago, when youth from Central Asia largely migrated to Russia and other countries to do hard, physical labor, the younger generation is more focused on looking for educational opportunities. More and more Central Asians are looking to China for these opportunities. Most foreign students only study language and others are left with the impression that they are only there to be given a positive impression of China, but for students from Uzbekistan at least, the experience seems to provide great opportunity with Chinese companies at home.
Being exposed to a more diverse international environment among other foreign students and labor migrants coming to China from different corners of the world also opens up new horizons for exploration. In this sense, China can be seen as a stepping stone for young people to migrate further in search for better-paid jobs and a more comfortable life than they might find at home.
This article was produced as part of the Spheres of Influence Uncovered project, implemented by n-ost, BIRN, Anhor, and JAM News, with financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).