‘Going global’: China exports soft power with first large-scale university in Malaysia

Beijings push for overseas influence extends to the education sector, with the opening of Xiamen University outside Kuala Lumpur

Near the classrooms at the original Xiamen University in China, there is a pleasant mound and lake. So, when the government-owned institution set out to build the first ever large-scale international branch of a Chinese university, an hour outside of Kuala Lumpur, they found a mound and built a lake.

We would like to keep some aspects of our parent university, because it is part of the tradition and cultural activities, said Wang Ruifang, chairwoman of Xiamen University Malaysia. We would like to give our students space to think.

Workers are still excavating holes in the ground around the new lake as the ambitious $ 300 m dollar project continues to transform 150 acres of Malaysian countryside from palm trees and grazing kine into a state-of- the-art educational facility, complete with swimming pool and tennis courts.

While the surrounds are still being worked on, China has already opened the doors to the newest component of its global outreach strategy, building a fully functional international university to compete with long-standing American, British, and Australian offerings. The first batch of students at XMU Malaysia is already working towards graduation.

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A labourer works on completing the campus. Photo: Vincent Bevins

Yu Heng Yuen, a 20 -year-old finance student on the way to the gym on a recent Saturday, told attending XMU was originally his fathers idea.

Its a famous university in China, and we figure there would be some advantage to being in the first international class, he said. He likes the place, and he likes his job prospects. I figure I can look for a chore here, or in China, or even better, in Singapore.

Like most of the students, Yu Heng is a Malaysian of ethnic Chinese descent who was education in the countrys Chinese-language schools. Out of current enrolment of 1,900, there are also 440 students from China.

The students examine in English and mostly converse in Chinese speeches. For now, Malay the language of around 60% of the population is restricted mostly to campus staff working in convenience tales and serving student dinners in cavernous dining halls, but officials hope to attract more Malay students as period goes on.

Xiong Bingqi, an education expert from Shanghais Jiaotong University, told Chinese universities had been opening overseas branches albeit far smaller ones for several years.

The first such school – Soochow University in Laos capital Vientiane – opened its doorways in 2012, while Shanghais Tongji University cut the ribbon on a small campus in Florence in 2014 offering short-term courses in topics such as art, design, architecture and manner.

Earlier this year, one of Chinas top universities, Peking University, announces that it had bought a 19 th century manor in Oxford and would open a branch of its HSBC Business School there in 2018.

Xiong said the Malaysian project was part of a wider Chinese push for global influence known as Beijings going global strategy.

By opening campuses abroad, these universities hope to enhance their overseas influence and to become involved in international higher education. And the government thinks it is good way to export Chinese soft power, told Xiong who is also the vice-president of Chinas 21 st Century Education Research Institute.

Xiong said he hoped the presence of Chinese universities overseas might help accelerate the reform of its domestic education system as Chinese schools learned from their foreign competitors. But Xiong said he also feared many such campuses were little more than image projects that might not be financially sustainable or be able to offer high-quality programs.

Theres nothing wrong with[ these schools] going global. But we are more interested in their real impact rather than all the hyped-up rhetoric.

For the moment, XMU Malaysia is focused on finishing the construction industry, boosting the student body to 5,000 by 2020, and stimulating back their sizeable investment. Any profits will be poured back into XMU Malaysia, never repatriated, University president Wang said. Starting at about $5,000 per year, tuition here is less than UK and Australian competitors, but a bit more than Malaysian private universities.

Malaysia was a natural fit for the expansion, Wang said , not only because of active government cooperation, but because Tan Kah Kee, the founder of Xiamen, originally constructed his fortune in British Malaya, modern-day Malaysia and Singapore. The architectural style named after him, which mixes

Western and traditional Chinese elements, are being faithfully reproduced here.

We think of this as historic, Wang told, speaking of bringing Xiamens educational offerings back to where its founder started. It is indeed important for us to get the investment back, but we would like to take a longer position and devote it more day. XMU did not establish XMU Malaysia to make money.

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen in Beijing

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