Tuesday 27 February 2024

Opinion: Confucius Institute Enhances Chinese Language Education, Cultural Exchange in NW Cambodia


Confucius institutes have been playing a vital role in promoting Chinese language education and cultural exchanges, along with enhancing the quality of education in Cambodian higher education institutions for over a decade. Currently, four major Confucius institutes are operational in Cambodia. The first one was co-founded by Jiujiang University and the Royal Academy of Cambodia (CIRAC) on December 22, 2009, an organization that operates under the supervision of the Council of Ministers.

On December 26, 2019, the second Confucius Institute (CINUBB) was established by the Guilin University of Electronic Technology and the National University of Battambang, which is overseen by the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport. The Nanjing Vocational University of Industry Technology and the Federation of Khmer Chinese in Cambodia jointly established the fourth one at the Cambodian University of Technology and Science (CICamTech) in November 2022, which is also supervised by the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport.

On June 4, 2020, the fourth Chinese higher education institution was founded in Cambodia. Hainan University collaborated with the Royal University of Agriculture at the Royal University of Agriculture to establish the China-Indochina Research and Education Center for Sustainable Development (CIRUA). CIRUA operates under the supervision of the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.

Besides CIRUA, other Chinese higher education institutions, such as Lanmei University of Cambodia and Cambodia-China University of Technology and Science, have also been established in Cambodia. China is promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) diplomacy in Cambodia by supporting higher education in science, technology, and information and communication technology (ICT). This initiative reflects Chinese cooperation and contributes to the debate over China's international development model and its growing role as a global leader.

In addition, on April 25, 2018, former Prime Minister Hun Sen and former Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Xiong Bo jointly unveiled Kratie University. The university cost 12 million U.S. dollars, with 10 million coming from the Chinese government and the rest from the Kratie Foundation for Higher Education Organization.

According to the 2023 Southeast Asia Confucius Institutes Joint Conference report, Southeast Asia has 62 Confucius Institutes (classrooms) as of July 2023, with Thailand having the most at 23—the highest number in ASEAN. The size of the Chinese diaspora population and the perception that China's economic influence provides Mandarin speakers with more job opportunities are the most apparent reasons why Mandarin language learning has grown in popularity in ASEAN rather than in the West.

Southeast Asia is home to approximately 30 million of the estimated 40 million ethnic Chinese diaspora. While Confucius Institutes are lauded for their contributions to education and cultural exchange, they have also been criticized in several countries for concerns about academic freedom, propaganda, and influence operations. The perception and impact of these institutes vary significantly from one country to another. On the other hand, Cambodia can benefit from establishing Confucius institutes that can provide Chinese language education to students to increase employment and economic growth in Cambodia.

The Confucius Institute, a non-profit public educational organization affiliated with the People's Republic of China's Ministry of Education, is critical in promoting Chinese language education and cultural exchange in Cambodian higher education institutions. The Centre for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) and the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF) provide technical and financial support for C.I.s around the world.

The Confucius Institute has seven significant roles. Firstly, its primary focus is on teaching the Chinese language to Cambodian students. It offers classes led by certified and experienced Chinese language instructors, ranging from beginner to advanced levels. This helps Cambodian students learn Chinese and prepares them for careers in business and diplomacy, where Chinese language proficiency is increasingly valued.

Secondly, besides teaching students, these institutes also frequently train Cambodian Chinese language teachers, contributing to developing a long-term model for Chinese language education in the country.

Thirdly, they organize and facilitate various cultural exchange programs, including Chinese cultural festivals, art exhibitions, music and dance performances, and other events that showcase Chinese culture. These events help enhance mutual understanding and cultural exchange between China and Cambodia.

Fourth, they provide resources such as books, journals, and electronic materials to support Chinese language education and offer scholarships or funding opportunities for Cambodian students to study in China, fostering educational exchanges.

Fifth, some Confucius Institutes engage in academic and research collaborations between Cambodian and Chinese higher education institutions. This includes joint research projects, conferences, seminars, and the exchange of academic staff and scholars.

Sixth, facilitating international collaboration: These institutes facilitate broader international collaboration and partnership in higher education by serving as a bridge between Chinese and Cambodian educational institutions.

Finally, promoting understanding of Chinese policies and developments: through various programs and seminars, the Confucius Institutes also provide insights into Chinese policies, economic developments, and societal changes, which is crucial for countries like Cambodia with strong economic and diplomatic ties with China.

In the meantime, I'd like to share an achievement of one of the Confucius Institutes in Cambodia, CINUBB. The institute has been instrumental in training Chinese language human resources in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh, benefitting more than 6,165 students.

It has also helped to strengthen the friendship between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the People's Republic of China, which has a rich history. CINUBB has 21 full-time international Chinese language teachers, most of whom have bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degrees and extensive overseas teaching experience.

In collaboration with Battambang's Provincial Department of Education, Youth, and Sports, the Confucius Institute has established 18 Chinese language classes at some high schools, including Pich Chenda High School and Sdao Santepheap High School, as well as higher education institutions, the 5th Military Headquarter Region, and Chinese enterprises, providing Chinese language training at all levels. Currently, more than 200 students are pursuing a Bachelor of Chinese Literature degree at the National Universities of Battambang and Meanchey.

Over the last four years, the Confucius Institute has organized 160 cultural exchange activities and provided opportunities for Chinese language lovers in Cambodia to showcase their talents, including the Spring Festival, Zhuang Festival, Khmer New Year Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, Cultural Experience Festival, and teaching activities, including a Chinese poetry recitation competition, a "Chinese Bridge" competition for university students, and a Chinese singing competition. These activities have served as a link between international Chinese language education in northwestern Cambodia and China, fostering cultural exchanges and promoting friendship between our two nations.

National and international media both report on these activities. In particular, the Confucius Institute at the National University of Battambang has received several outstanding awards from well-known Chinese newspapers. Regarding educational exchanges between China and Cambodia, the Confucius Institute is dedicated to enhancing Cambodia's national education system through exchanging knowledge and technology.  Cambodia's Minister of Education, Youth, and Sport, Hang Chuon Naron, and Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, Wang Wentian signed a memorandum of understanding on November 9, 2022, to pilot Chinese courses in some public schools, with implementation scheduled in 2023.

Furthermore, the Confucius Institute contributes to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative. On January 15, 2024, the National Institute of Education trained 100 Cambodian teachers who will teach Chinese in Cambodian public schools. As part of the first phase, 20 public secondary schools teach Chinese. More than 100 Cambodian educational institutions have trained more than 100,000 students in the Chinese language, according to the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport statement.

In the future, the Confucius Institute of the National University of Battambang will increase the number of Chinese classrooms and teaching sites open to public and private schools and enterprises, integrate Chinese with other related majors, do substantial work for students' employment, and improve their labour skills. CINUBB will contribute to achieving the Belt and Road Initiatives and mutual understanding of both leaders.

Remarkably, Prime Minister Hun Sen and President Xi Jinping signed an agreement on Cambodia-China relations and cooperation in February 2023, including the launch of the "Diamond Cooperation" and the establishment of the "Industrial and Technological Corridor" and "Fish and Rice Corridor." Prime Minister Hun Manet and Chinese leaders, especially President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang, exchanged views on propelling the Year of People-to-People Exchange in 2024 into a productive year with concrete outcomes by attracting additional Chinese tourists and more direct flights from China to Cambodia, particularly Siem Reap.

The fish and rice corridor initiative aims to enhance agricultural trade between the two countries, focusing on products like fish, rice, tropical fruits, vegetables, and various agricultural inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides, and animal feed in northwestern Cambodia, particularly in the Tonle Sap Lake area, to develop modern ecological agriculture near Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake by surface area.

Former Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on March 14, 2023, that the government had designated four provinces—Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Pailin—as Cambodia's fourth economic pole. Cambodian Tourism Minister Sok Soken said the Southeast Asian country recorded 5.4 million international tourists, including some 540,000 Chinese tourists, in 2023. According to Cambodia's Ministry of Tourism, China was Cambodia's most significant source of international tourist arrivals in the pre-pandemic era.

The kingdom received 2.36 million Chinese tourists in 2019, accounting for 35.7 percent of the total international tourist arrivals and generating about 1.8 billion U.S. dollars in revenue. In conclusion, I firmly believe that C.I.s will continue to contribute to providing quality Chinese language education for Cambodians and to be a bridge to facilitate cultural and people-to-people exchanges for mutual benefits and Cambodia's economic growth, not only in Northwestern Cambodia but also in the whole country.

Sam Rany is a Vice-Rector of the National University of Battambang (NUBB) and Co-Director of the Confucius Institute of the National University of Battambang (CINUBB).

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