China’s French graduates swap government jobs for African adventures

By Julie Zhu in Hong Kong
When Xu Jing completed her French degree, she decided not to follow in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping, the late leader, who worked in France in the 1920s.
The young woman from Beijing instead joined a big Chinese construction company that she knew would send her to francophone Africa. Within a month she was in Algeria, joining the hundreds of thousands of Chinese working in Africa as part of a rapidly expanding diaspora.
“In college I dreamt of going to France as people say that it’s the most romantic country in the world,” Ms Xu says. “But then I realised I can visit anytime . . Africa, on the other hand, was different as nobody I knew had been there.”
Several years ago her choice – which included abandoning a possible career at a television channel – would have been unorthodox for French graduates, who like most university-educated Chinese sought “iron rice bowl” jobs that guaranteed lifetime employment. Beijing Foreign Studies University, one of China’s premier
language colleges, says the number of its French graduates who take jobs in Africa
has more than doubled from about 14 per cent in 2004 to about a third in recent years.
Chinese companies with operations in Africa now hire more BFSU graduates than
the government bodies that offer traditionally coveted jobs. The trend has also been propelled by a tight labour market for graduates, which has been exacerbated by the slowing Chinese economy. “Our students would turn their
noses up at jobs in Africa before. They were scared by the harsh conditions and, if they had a choice, would rather not go,” says Wang Kun, vice dean of BFSU’s         French department. “But after the financial crisis, they are more willing to work in Africa because it is harder to find a good job in China.”French graduates are also benefiting from a rapid expansion of Sino-African economic ties. Chinese direct investment in Africa rose from $1.44bn in 2009 to $2.52bn in 2012, an annual increase of 20 per cent, according to the government. There are 2,500 Chinese enterprises with operations in China, up from 800 in 2006.
Chinese companies are also luring workers with better salaries than those available in China. Mr Wang says new graduates can earn up to Rmb200,000 ($32,000) a year in Africa, more than six times the average salary of Rmb30,000 for new college hires in China. The rising demand for French  speakers has helped boost the number of Chinese universities offering the language as a major from 31 to 132 over the past decade. According to the Chinese Association of French Teaching, the number of university undergraduates studying for French degrees
rose fivefold to 20,000 over the same period. This in turn has sparked an increase
in the number of Chinese who study in France. The French embassy in Beijing estimates that China will overtake Morocco as the primesource of foreign students in France next year. While some universities are trying to capitaliseon the new Africa trend, others are slower to change. Shen Guanglin, a French professor
at Chengdu Institute Sichuan International Studies University, says elite universities focus too much on French literature and history, and overlook the fact that Africa is becoming the biggest workplace for students. “It’s impossible for us to compete with top universities. Our students  are not as good as theirs . . . so we have to create our own strengths,” Mr Shen says. He says his institute has introduced a more practical curriculum that focuses on areas such as engineering, technology and foreign trade.
The move appears to have been successful. Last year 93 per cent of his students had secured jobs by the time of their graduation, almost the same rate as students at much more elite universities such as BFSU. Meanwhile, companies flock to the institute seeking students of French, rather than the other way round as in the past. Half of his graduates ended up working for big Chinese companies with operations in Africa.
After graduating from the Institute in 2010, Gao Yunchuan went to Niger to work for Sinohydro, China’s largest dam-builder, swiftly rising from intern to deputy general manager.
“I never thought that one day I would work in Africa,” Mr Gao says. “I had only seen Africa on maps.” While Mr Gao, who comes from a remote rural part of
Sichuan province, has to endure an extremely hot and dry climate in Niger, life is made easier by the fact he earned Rmb240,000 last year. “My friends told me I would earn a fortune in Africa but I had no idea it would be so much,” he says. “My monthly living expenses at collegewere just Rmb500.”

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Posted by on Sep 16 2014. Filed under African News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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