SHANGHAI: It is easy to confuse Ko Ko Kyaw for a local university student in China. He dresses like one - padded bomber jacket and ripped slim-cut jeans with white trainers, which is typical attire for a sporty Chinese male millennial.
But more importantly, the Myanmar-national speaks like a local Chinese, bantering comfortably in putonghua, or Mandarin, like someone who was born in China and has been speaking the language his entire life.
Terms that only local Chinese would be familiar with roll off Ko Ko Kyaw’s tongue with ease, even though he only started having formal lessons five years ago. He even speaks English with a Chinese accent.
The 22-year-old accountancy student at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University is part of a growing number of Southeast Asian students who have chosen to pursue their higher education in China.
“I got interested in China after attending a summer camp in Kunming,” recalled Ko Ko Kyaw in perfect mandarin. Kunming, which borders Myanmar, is a city in Yunnan Province in China’s southwest.
“China and Myanmar have many joint ventures, providing more job opportunities. My experience in China will give me an advantage when applying for a job back home,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
For 21-year-old Laotian Pingpanya Phommilath, China was also his first choice when considering where to get a university degree. He is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public administration at Fudan University.
“China is becoming stronger and its economy is getting bigger,” he told Channel NewsAsia in an email interview. “There are many Chinese in my country. So studying in China means better prospects (for me).”
For many of these Southeast Asian students, a degree earned in China can lead to better job prospects at home as China and Southeast Asia forge closer economic ties.
This is partly why an estimated 80,000 students from Southeast Asia chose to enrol in Chinese universities in 2016, a 15 per cent increase from 2014, according to the China University and College Admission System (CUCAS), an online information and application portal with links to the country’s Education Ministry.
Students from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) now form the biggest group of foreign students studying in China’s higher education institutes, overtaking South Koreans.
Elsewhere, student numbers from the United States, the third largest group, saw a dip in the same period.
But the key reason why more students are choosing China is the availability of generous scholarships from the Chinese government awarded as part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative - the country’s flagship foreign policy to strengthen trade, social and political links with Southeast Asia.
"As part of promoting the initiative, the government has been encouraging more students to come to China to study, so they’ve invested a lot resources.” said Zhou Dong, chairman of CUCAS.
“In 2016, the government allocated 50,400 scholarship spots covering tuition, accommodation and monthly living expenses,” he added.
China is said to have set aside 23 billion yuan (US$3.6 billion) for such scholarships in 2016, said Lucian Koh, Managing Director of Singapore Success Stories, a consultancy that designs education programmes. Clients for Singapore Success Stories include sovereign wealth fund Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.
“China can post these talents who have graduated from here back into their respective home countries to develop infrastructure, financial services, logistics services for China,” said Mr Koh.
“For China to be more accepted in the global community in terms of its rise as a new superpower, it starts with people,” he added. “In Chinese, they call them 'Zhihua Youhua' students which means (students) who know China and are friendly to China - these graduates will be the best ambassadors for the country.”
Koh estimates that eight to nine out of every ten foreign students in China receive some form of funding from the Chinese government.
“We’re neighbours, after all. China is geographically close to ASEAN and most of the countries have cultures and customs which are fundamentally East Asian,” said CUCAS’ Zhou, referring to the wide Chinese diaspora and pockets of ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asian countries.
CHEAPER ALTERNATIVE FOR HIGHER LEARNING
For Malaysian businessman Lee Kwok Yat, China offers the best of both worlds - affordable tuition fees and good quality education.
The 53-year-old businessman’s daughter is studying to be a doctor at Wuhan University.
“When you first talk about China, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) comes to mind. But when I found out that they also offer courses in medicine in English, I was very pleased.” he said.
“In Malaysia, if you want to go to a public university, it's very, very difficult. And to study in a private medical school will easily cost RM500,000 (US$128,000). So I think its too much for me.”
Mr Lee said total expenses for his daughter’s studies in China come to slightly over RM200,000, less than half the cost if she had stayed in Malaysia.
“Right now there are 45 universities in China that offer spots for international students. Over 3,000 spots are reserved for international students per year for medical courses. (There is a) good chance to get admitted.” he said, adding that in comparison there are only a few hundred spots for medicine courses in Malaysia’s public universities.
At least a fifth of degree programmes in each of China’s top 150 universities are taught entirely in English. And these include popular courses in business, medicine and engineering, targeted at foreign students.
The formula worked. China is now the world’s third most popular destination for higher education, after the UK and the US.
For the Chinese universities, having a bigger foreign student population improves their global reputation and rankings. More subject courses taught in China made it to the world’s best 50 list on the often cited global QS university rankings.
However, more may not necessarily mean better. The US and UK still dominate the top spots in global rankings for best courses in business, engineering and medicine and for their research capabilities and results.
“Institutions in the west enjoy a lot of free play in the areas they want to do research in (and) in distribution of funds.” said Lucian Koh from Singapore Success Stories. "But in Chinese universities, they’re limited. (And) very much dictated by the government,” he added.
This implies that there are restrictions on what students can choose to do research on.
Controversial political topics are generally off limits.
For her masters thesis, 23-year-old Jolene Liew had proposed to do a comparative study between Uighur Muslims in China’s far west province Xinjiang and Muslims from Brunei, where she comes from. But she was told by her professors in Fudan University that the topic was too sensitive.
Jolene moved to Shanghai last September after receiving an all-expenses paid scholarship to do a two-year masters in international politics at Fudan University. The Bruneian government scholar had obtained a bachelor’s degree in politics and international relations at the University of Bath in the UK.
Even though she was disappointed at the restriction, Jolene said she was still appreciative of what the programme offers, such as workshops with students from Korea and Japan. And at the end of the day, she said she came for the full China experience.
“It’s good to have some eastern oriental view points to balance my western bias,” she said, “I take this as an opportunity for me to learn new aspect(s) of life, as well as to prove to people that you don’t necessarily have to go to the west to enjoy quality, academic experiences, or even to learn something new.”
After all, Jolene receives the best education China can offer. Fudan is one of the country’s top five universities and is number seven on Asia’s top ten list for 2018.
But being in the company of China’s most outstanding and competitive students can prove to be quite intense.
“No one in the world can compare with students in China. They are really (intense) in studying,” said Myanmar student Ko Ko Kyaw.
“It’s highly stressful. From when they were young until the national entrance (level), they have been studying and studying. They’re always studying even at university.”
Malaysian Oh Jing En, 22, who studies Radio and Television at Fudan University, told Channel NewsAsia that she takes the competition in her stride.
“Most Chinese students take their studies very seriously. They approach teachers after class on their own and are able to handle stress well during exams.”
Indonesian Kevin P Tenggario, who is majoring in Economics at Fudan University, said the pressure only makes him want to work harder.
“Even though teachers sometimes tell us not to compare with the Chinese students, but being in the same course, we still want to work harder and spend more time learning.”