China Power | Diplomacy | Society | East Asia

Foreign Students and China’s Soft Power: The Case of Uganda

The link between Ugandan students in China and Chinese influence in Uganda is more complicated than it appears.

By Benjamin Mulvey for
Foreign Students and China’s Soft Power: The Case of Uganda
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ potatohai

In 2019, the Chinese ambassador in Uganda announced that 99 scholarships will be made available for Ugandans to study in Chinese universities. In addition to those who receive financial aid, many Ugandans will pay their own way to study in China. Studying abroad is an attractive option for students from a country whose higher education system is marred by insufficient funding, overcrowded facilities, and insufficient numbers of instructors.

For these students, China has rapidly become a destination of choice, because of its relative affordability, the availability of scholarships, as well as the relative ease of securing a study visa. China employs its higher education sector as a means of gaining influence abroad and accumulating “soft power,” especially in countries that are of geopolitical importance, such as those participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. In the words of the Chinese Ministry of Education, the role of international graduates is to “tell China’s story well and spread China’s voice.”

African countries appear to be an area of focus for China’s educational diplomacy push. In total over the course of 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Education reports that 81,562 African students studied in China. This means that China is now the second most popular destination for African students who want to study abroad, having surpassed the traditional destination countries for international students, such as the United Kingdom and United States, several years ago (France continues to be the number one destination).

China also provides a huge number of scholarships to African students – at the most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Beijing pledged 50,000 scholarships for Africans to study in China over three years, from 2018 to 2021. This level of support massively exceeds what is offered by China’s competitors such as the U.K. or U.S. As a result, China’s recruitment of African students has been described as the “dawn of an era.”

The actual effects of China’s global push for influence through higher education remain open to question, however. In a recent academic study on Ugandan graduates of Chinese universities, I highlighted some of the problems with the link made between higher education and soft power accumulation.

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Uganda is a key Chinese ally in East Africa. The government of Yoweri Museveni is pro-China and was one of the first African governments to explicitly claim its economic reforms as inspired by the Chinese model. It is also signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, and various large-scale infrastructure projects have already been funded through that partnership — for instance two hydroelectric dams and a highway between Entebbe airport and Kampala. Ugandan graduates of Chinese universities, then, have a potentially important role to play as social actors who could influence whether China’s attempts to build closer ties and increase its economic and political influence are welcomed in their home country.

My findings, however, suggest that in the case of Uganda, there are a number of issues with the idea that recruiting international students automatically leads to positive outcomes for China’s soft power. Graduates report mixed experiences in China and nuanced attitudes toward their hosts, calling into question the often oversimplified link between study abroad and soft power. While China attempts to seize the opportunity afforded by the current global climate to advance its interests abroad through investing heavily in student recruitment in countries like Uganda, the potential return on this investment remains to be seen.

Experiences of social alienation were common among Ugandan students in China, highlighting a potential barrier to deep social interactions and a sense of belonging, assumed to be important in the long-term maintenance of international ties after graduation. As one Ugandan graduate from a prestigious university in Beijing explains, “There is racism in China… [it] is right there, but no one wants to talk about, nobody cares about it, everyone is just indifferent. Actually that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to leave China.”

These feeling of frustration were echoed by a master’s degree graduate from another high-ranking university, highlighting how “outside the university, we had a kind of isolation. On the bus, if you are African, whoever is near you, they move away. They won’t even shake hands with you.”

These examples of discrimination experienced by Ugandan students raise a challenge for China’s soft power push. How can it be expected that students who feel they are the victims of an overt anti-African racism, which remains largely undiscussed within Chinese society, would return to their home countries and spread positive messages about China?

Unsurprisingly, there was also a great deal of skepticism among graduates around China’s role in Uganda, with several graduates voicing negative opinions of China’s economic involvement in the country. As a graduate of a Chinese language diploma, now working as a translator, put it, “From my interactions and my analysis, it feels like they are here for them, kind of like they are colonizing us.” While the Chinese government seems to make a direct link between recruiting international students and influence abroad, the evidence suggests that this link might not be as clear cut or straightforward as assumed.

Crucially, though, the interviewed graduates appear to see continued ties with China as worth pursuing, as they are able to leverage their time in China in the Ugandan job market. Chinese enterprises are the largest source of foreign direct investment in Uganda, and have created at least 18,000 jobs across a wide range of sectors. As such, regardless of any misgivings toward Chinese foreign policy, graduates were keen to continue working with Chinese companies after graduation. Those with skills in Chinese were able to find positions in Chinese companies that are active in Uganda.

An engineering graduate who had studied for both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in China expressed the common sentiment that Chinese language skills had been crucial in landing a job after returning home. He found work in a Chinese construction corporation working on one of the large-scale highway building projects associated with the Belt and Road Initiative. He suggested that “once the Chinese guy [the interviewer] actually had me speak their language, he was impressed.”

The skeptical attitudes and mixed experiences of graduates then, appear to be of limited importance in their decisions to engage with China’s broader push for economic power and political influence in Uganda. The existing nexus of economic ties between the two countries makes continued engagement a lucrative option, as time spent in China represents a marked advantage when trying to find employment.

All in all, the jury remains out on the effectiveness of China’s use higher education as a form of public diplomacy in Africa. While in Uganda the preliminary signs are mixed, little is known about what the scores of China graduates across the continent are doing. That said, it is clear that these individuals are likely to shape Sino-African relations in the long run.

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Benjamin Mulvey is a Ph.D. candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on African students in China and China’s attempts to reshape the global higher educational field.