Life was not rosy for 23-year-old Karachiite Muhammad Zakir, who lived off daily wages before he learned the Chinese language.
Just seven months ago, Zakir, son of a driver and dweller of Muzaffarabad Colony in the Landhi suburb of Karachi, was making a meagre sum of money – with significant intervals between earnings. He was working as helper in a construction company to help his family make ends meet.
With no formal education, unskilled Zakir kept trying but failing in his desperate hunt for a better job. After completion of his Intermediate (class 12) exams and later obtaining admission in a two-year Chinese language class, he succeeded in getting a course certificate from the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Karachi campus. Soon he got a job in one of Karachi’s dual seaports, Port Qasim, as a Chinese language translator for the staff of an automobile company. Today he is earning PKR 60,000 ($570) per month, more than two times what he used to earn from his previous employment.
Zakir soon found a job at Port Qasim as a Chinese language translator for the staff of an automobile company
“Learning Chinese began as an interest for me. Now it has become a passion. During the early months of coaching, it was difficult to adjust with the language and the atmosphere that accompanies any new language, but with the passage of time, things settled down nicely!,” Zakir says.
Zakir is one of the thousands of Pakistani youth learning the Chinese language in search of what they hope will be a better future. This has become something of a booming trend since April 2015, when Islamabad and Beijing signed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) accord.
The arrival of CPEC, dubbed as a strategic and economic “game-changer” for the region, amounting to some $51 billion in proposed Chinese investments in Pakistan – mainly in energy and infrastructure – also heralds the influx of a number of Chinese professionals to Pakistan. With the numbers of these Chinese expatriates increasing day by day, learning Chinese becomes a trend. The Chinese influx and the accompanying language barrier has become something of a boon for some Pakistani youth. After learning the Chinese language, they can hope to realise the possibility of getting jobs as translators and interpreters.
“The number of Chinese nationals is increasing day by day in Sindh,” Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah tells The Friday Times. “Around 4,000 Chinese are presently working in Sindh, other than those affiliated with CPEC projects. It is expected that as CPEC picks up steam, Chinese professionals in the province would increase to 13,000 in both CPEC and non-CPEC categories,” he hopes.
Shah adds that the Chinese arrivals would help create job opportunities including, of course, language-related jobs.
“Keeping in view the growing economic activities with China, we have introduced Chinese language courses in school students’ syllabus. This is fresh step, so it has its own significance,” the Sindh Chief Minister added.
Pak-China friendship is described by officials on both sides as “time-tested and cordial”. However it is the first time now that Pakistanis are learning the Chinese language en masse, with their eyes on promising and lucrative job opportunities. According to some watchers of the job market, chances for youth with Chinese language skills for getting a job in construction companies or in the trade and pharmaceutical industries are significantly increased.
Apart from Karachi, there are two more Confucius Institutes in Pakistan, one in Islamabad and one in Faisalabad
The Increasing demand for interpreters has certainly brightened prospects for people like Syed Muhammad Asim Qadri.
Qadri learnt Chinese in Karachi and started coaching Chinese part-time to local students in 2010 – beginning with twelve students. During this period he left his full-time marketing consultant job and got fully involved in teaching Chinese.
“I started this job as a part-timer and today I am teaching Chinese to 120 university students, besides working with Chinese professionals. I left my marketing job because of increasing prospects in Chinese coaching at different institutes,” Qadri said.
“Chinese people abroad often face an English language barrier and aside from the importance of coaching to Chinese people, more and more locals are learning Chinese to minimise the language gap and land better jobs,” Qadri stated.
Two successive Pakistani governments, including the current one led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former one led by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), initiated various programmes to teach the Chinese language in the country. Under such plans, Sindh started a programme to last ten years, with full funding from the Chinese government, under which 500 students will be sent to China.
This year the Sindh Education and Literacy Department sent 61 students of government schools from all over Sindh, including 8 girls, to China. It is estimated that some Rs. 9 million would be spent on each of these students during the programme.
Learning Chinese has attracted young women who think it will allow them to overcome gender-based difficulties in the job market
“It is made obligatory that after completion of five-year Bachelors degree in Chinese language, these students would teach in various parts of the province for the next five years,” said Bismah Shah, Deputy Director at the Sindh Education & Literacy Department.
At present there are around 2,500 students learning Chinese language certificate courses of a graduation level, at different government, semi-government and private educational institutions. But the number is increasing with every day passing.
In such a context, the Government of Pakistan in collaboration with the Chinese government established a Confucius Institute for the Chinese Language at the University of Karachi (UoK). Named after the famed Chinese thinker, the Confucius Institute has started working in Karachi since early 2014 with Chinese faculty.
The Confucius Institute of Chinese Language at the University of Karachi (KU) was inaugurated in November, 2013. The establishment of the Institute was the result of an agreement signed during Chinese Premier Le Keqiang’s visit to Islamabad.
The Confucius Institute project has braches all over the world, with around 502 centres globally. Apart from Karachi, there are two more Confucius Institutes in Pakistan, one in Islamabad and one in Faisalabad, with Chinese faculty – a mandatory for all Confucius Institutes.
Similarly, at the University of Karachi, there are eleven Chinese native teachers out of which five are women, offering certificate courses, undergraduate, graduation-level courses and scholarship programs.
In one classroom at a Confucius Institute, Ms. You Li, a middle-aged Chinese teacher, is busy teaching nearly twenty students. “Pak-Cheen Dosti Wang Woye, Pak-Cheen Dosti Zindabad!” (“Long Live Pak-China Friendship!”), she utters the now famous Chinese-Urdu slogan to emphasise what is officially described as an ‘all-weather and time-tested friendship’ between the two countries. The language of officialdom though it may be, here the entire class responds with great enthusiasm. Many have heard this slogan before and some would have remembered it, but reading it in Chinese on a mass level was something new. This is something they have never experienced before the launch of the CPEC projects.
At the Institute, students of various age groups and professional fields have been enrolled all together. Among them is the 49-year-old Dr. Muhammad Sohail Khan, a lecturer at the Government Manghopir College, Karachi.
“A lot of the latest research work comes from China in the education sector. Although translations of such papers are available in English, I think it is helpful to understand in depth such work in depth when you know the native language of the research,” Dr. Sohail believes.
Sitting besides Dr. Sohail is Qurat-ul-Ain, a twenty-something woman who completed her Master’s degree in Public Administration. “I hope that by learning Chinese, I would get a good job and a fine salary package,” she repeats the usual, hopeful refrain of Pakistani students learning the new language.
There are 1,000 students registered at the Institute. The numbers of students have multiplied twenty times since its inauguration, when there were only around 50 students.
According to Moinuddin Siddiqui, Pakistan Director at the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi, the increasing interest of students in learning Chinese language can mainly be attributed to the increasing economic activity through the CPEC.
“Through media, students are getting aware of the latest developments. They understand that in the near future, once they complete their studies, there would be lot of employment opportunities via CPEC. And for that, knowing the Chinese language would be very valuable,” believes Siddiqui.
There are three categories of students. One is that of students who are enrolled at university and want to enrich their CV. The second category consists of students who want to go to China for higher studies and are looking to obtain scholarships. The third category consists of businessmen and professionals.
But it’s not just about doing business and finding jobs, at least for Mr. Li Yong, the Chinese Director at the Confucius Institute of the University of Karachi. He thinks the initiative would help in promoting people-to-people contacts and cooperation in the realms of education and culture between the two countries.
“After the students get their certification, a lot of Chinese companies and economic opportunities would be waiting for them in Pakistan,” Yong assures us.
Moving upstream from Karachi, at Cadet College Petaro, located on the right bank of the Indus – some 30 kilometers away from Hyderabad in Jamshoro district – learning Chinese has been made compulsory since 2012, taught by Chinese teachers.
“The Chinese language has been made part of our College curriculum,” said Mehboob Elahi Malik, Commandant and Principal of the Cadet College at Petaro. He continues:
“At the moment, 650 cadets are learning the Chinese language besides taking classes in other subjects. In addition, a five-year scholarship has also been provided by the Chinese government, through which 30 of our cadets are in China, studying in various courses,” Malik informs us.
Learning Chinese is, clearly, not only appealing to Pakistani males. It would seem that it has attracted females equally – young women who think language-based job opportunities will be open to them and allow them to overcome gender-based difficulties in the job market.
A group of eleven female students in their final year of studies at the Sindh Madressatul Islam University (SMIU), Karachi, along with two female faculty members left Pakistan for China on the 4th of November 2016. They are to attend a month-long internship program at Sanya University, China.
The visit was part of memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed at Karachi in May 2016, between fourteen universities of Pakistan and four Chinese universities to establish Pakistan-China Research Centers. Under the understanding, universities of China’s Hainan and Pakistan’s Sindh agreed to set up mutually and equally funded Pakistan-China Research Centres in the universities of the respective provinces of the two countries. The aim is to launch joint research projects.
In this project, the Pakistani universities participating include the University of Karachi, Sindh Madrassatul Islam University, Dow University of Health Sciences, Jinnah Sindh Medical University, Sindh Agriculture University at Tando Jam, Mehran University of Engineering and Technology at Jamshoro, Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University, Lasbella University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Medical University at Larkana, Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University at Sakrand, the University of Turbat, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Womens’ University at Peshawar, Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto University of Law and the prestigious IBA in Karachi. On the other hand, Chinese universities include the Hainan University, Hainan Normal University, Sanya University and Hainan Tropical Ocean University.
These universities from Pakistan and China also agreed to launch student exchange programs for short-term courses and agreed to plan for long-term courses.
“Prior to this group of female students, a group of ten male students from the SMIU, during their final year of studies, have already completed month-long internships from Hainan Tropical Ocean University, China, in October,” we are informed by Muhammad Ali Shaikh, Vice Chancellor of SMIU.
“We believe in empowering the women. On their return, these students would play the role of a bridge between high officials of their Chinese employer companies and the rest of the staff,” the Vice Chancellor added.
Meanwhile, news of increasing Chinese economic commitments in Pakistan continues to come in. The Vice Chancellor at the SMIU quotes the example of a recently reported agreement signed between the Abraaj Group and Shanghai Electric Power (SEP) of China last week, to acquire a 66.4 percent stake in K-Electric for $1.77 billion. K-Electric, formerly Karachi Electric Supply Company Ltd, is the main provider of electric power to the 20 million people of Karachi.
Arishman Naseer Shaikh, a graduate in Media Sciences from the SMIU, who visited China last month, is now interested in a far longer sojourn in China: he wants to complete his higher education there..
“It would help me in getting admission for Masters Degree program in China,” Shaikh says about his experience with China and its language so far.
Another institute, the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Karachi campus, is catering to some 100 students in Chinese now. NUML offers language courses for six languages apart from Chinese, including German, French, Korean, Arabic and English.
Similarly, Preston University is catering to some 80 students at the moment. The Institute of Business Management (IoBM) is also teaching the Chinese language to 80 students. The Defence Housing Authority Central Library in Karachi is offering basic level and advanced level courses in the language and catering to around two dozen students.
Some experts certainly agree on the commercial viability of linguistic skills so as to participate in Chinese-led economic activity in Pakistan. The possibilities include seeking employment at the Gwadar port, a warm-water, deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea in the Balochistan province. Gwadar’s port, as is common knowledge, is a centre-piece of Chinese interest in Pakistan..
According to reports, Gwadar City and Port would be further developed under the CPEC at a cost of $1.62 billion, with the aim of linking northern Pakistan and western China to this deep water seaport.
“The enrollment of students taking admission in our Chinese language programmes is increasing and now we have a current total of 100 seats but some 200 students want to get into the programme! They are learning Chinese, because it can help their professional growth in construction companies, banks and other places. We believe it is now increasingly lucrative. As a result of learning the language, they get jobs up to PKR 60,000 to 70,000 per month,” believes Brigadier (retd) Shahid Saleem Lone, Regional Director at the National University of Modern Languages, Karachi campus.
The language-learning, of course, is a two-way street. Chinese expatriates in Pakistan increasingly feel the need to brush up on their own skills in an entirely new language.
“While seeing the greater influx of Chinese, it is likely that we would soon start Urdu classes for Chinese nationals who are working in different fields,” said Brigadier Lone.
Apart from regular courses at different institutions, the Virtual University of Pakistan (recognised officially by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan or HECP) is also offering distance- and online-learning through basic language training modules for an audience who can speak and understand Chinese.
For Shoiab Aziz Shaikh, a resident of Sindh’s second-largest city, Hyderabad, working at a private firm, learning Chinese has never been easy. There have been, ultimately, limited opportunities at his city.
“Hyderabad has one institute offering Chinese language courses but to have your opportunity to enroll, you have to wait at least three months for fresh admissions. So I opted to learn Chinese through informal courses available on Youtube,” says Shoaib.
Shoaib believes even this method of working on his Chinese language skills will prove lucrative for him! As Chinese economic involvement in Pakistan picks up, time may well prove him right in his optimism.
Global spread of the Sinosphere: some facts about Chinese soft power initiatives across the globe
The Confucius Institute program is officially described as a non-profit initiative of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China to promote Chinese language and culture globally
Confucius Institutes operate globally in partnership with local educational institutions, especially universities
Some Western critics have raised concerns about the possibility of state backing to these Institutes impinging upon academic freedom and discourse around the Communist Party of China and its policies, although little concrete evidence has so far been provided by the critics
South Africa recently rolled out a program which aims to integrate Mandarin Chinese into its school curriculum
Similarly, Zimbabwe has taken the initiative in training local teachers in Mandarin and has effectively integrated China’s Confucius Institute program into its leading academic institutions.
The number of Chinese teachers going abroad to teach is now exceeding 5,000 and China hopes to have set up at least 1,000 Confucius Institutes globally by 2020
In many African countries with significant Chinese investments, a knowledge of Chinese is considered highly sought-after skill and one that provides relatively easier access to job opportunities
Apart from Africa, Chinese language-learning has spread particularly rapidly through Central Asia as the Asian giant extends its economic footprint via the “One Belt, One Road” vision. This is especially true in countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Zulfiqar Kunbhar is a Karachi-based journalist. He tweets at @ZulfiqarKunbhar