This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
As China’s role in the international arena has grown, Middle Eastern attitudes toward this rising power have changed. This attitudinal shift is reflected in China’s increasing appeal to young people who are at the beginning of their professional lives. In the past, boarding a flight to China was perceived as “reaching the end of the world for nothing,” as described by the father of one of this article’s interviewees. These days, however, it is not uncommon for students to pursue academic degrees or young professionals from the region to travel to China for business.
This article, based on personal interviews and conversations conducted in China with 14 men and women in their 20s and 30s from across the Middle East, is intended to shed light on phenomenon that I observed while living in China, namely the increasing number of young Middle Easterners who are relocating to China in order to obtain academic and professional credentials and experience.
E., A., K., T., and G. are master’s degree students. Four of them arrived from Turkey, and one from Saudi Arabia (though the latter is originally from Lebanon). Whereas two of these individuals chose to pursue their studies in China because they had been awarded special scholarships to do so, a third was on an exchange program administered by a university in Paris. The others regarded studying in China as a natural extension of their having already spent time in the country. In addition to their subject-specific substantive curriculum, all five are studying Chinese, and have become reasonably proficient speaking the language. Importantly, all five stressed that they regard studying in China as an investment, and hope that their academic training will unlock valuable career opportunities.
Furthermore, these students are planning to pursue careers that will connect them to China: four of them by doing business between Turkey and China or joining a consultancy; and the fifth seeking to enter the field of diplomacy and public policy, and calculating that firsthand knowledge of China will serve as an advantage.
Snapshots of Departure and Arrival
The five student interviewees characterized Chinese attitudes towards them as ranging from indifferent to congenial. They attributed the indifference to Chinese people’s lack of knowledge or familiarity with other cultures on the one hand, and simple disinterest on the other. They noted that they also had to contend with some linguistic challenges: for example, “Lebanon” and “Albania” sound quite similar in Chinese, and therefore are often confused with one another. The respondents pointed out that, from the perspective of average Chinese, the differences between Turks, Arabs, and Iranians are imperceptible — or at any rate, irrelevant.
According to all five student interviewees, they faced neither more nor less discrimination on the basis of their national or cultural origins than did peers from elsewhere in the world. All five also agreed that they felt physically safe while in China. This is not to suggest that the students encountered no difficulties or inconveniences in their daily lives. E. related the unnerving experience of temporarily being unable to access personal funds, as the Bank of China does not accept wire transfers from some Middle Eastern financial institutions. Nor is obtaining permission to enter China for purposes other studying necessarily a simple matter for anyone from the Middle East seeking to do so. For example, T., who is from Syria, stated although it was relatively easy for him to secure a student visa, his fellow countrymen would find it quite difficult to arrange a tourist visa. P., a female from Iran, noted that Iranian nationals must undergo difficult interviews and deposit 100,000 yuan for three months in order to obtain a visa; cannot convert US dollars to Chinese Yuan; and need a local partner in order to open a bank account, whether for personal or business purposes.
E. A. is an Egyptian student who grew up in Doha, Qatar and traveled to China to study because she discovered that there are convenient scholarship options. Her family was surprised by her choice to relocate to China for an extended period of time. However, with the help and encouragement of her brother, who had made a similar move, the family became convinced that her decision was well-informed and sensible. Prior to her arrival in China, E. A. had had a shallow knowledge of the country, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of life she encountered there.
E. A. wears the hijab, which made her rather conspicuous in China. However, she claims to have never been met with hostile glances or offensive remarks — adding, “as I could have encountered if I would have gone to study in Europe.” Despite the level of personal comfort that she enjoyed in China, E. A. nonetheless wishes to relocate to Europe following the completion of her studies, in order to pursue a career in international relations and diplomacy. Thus, in E. A.’s case, specific career aims, rather than disillusionment or discomfort will have caused her eventually to depart China.
Y., originally from Syria, cited intellectual curiosity as his primary reason for relocating to China to study: “We, in the Middle East, know very little about China, and it is very important to study this issue.” His studies were funded through scholarship donations made by “Chinese businesspeople, who wish to see China opening up to the world.” Y. made a point of emphasizing the welcoming atmosphere he and his friends experienced through their interactions with members of Chinese society. Y. also noted that his Chinese counterparts evinced little interest in learning about the long-running conflict in Syria. He, like other interviewees, stated that he would advise his friends to study in China. At the same time, however, he would not encourage them to settle there, as, in his words, “it’s tough for immigrants from the Middle East” — lacking a community of their own, facing a wide cultural gulf, and having to come to terms with living so far from home.
M. is a Saudi PhD student who has been living in Shanghai for the past eight years. M. chose China because his brother encouraged him to take a different path, “unlike all Saudis, who go to study in the US.” Like his friends, M. speaks appreciatively about the amiability of the people he has met, exclaiming that “the Chinese are the friendliest people, I’ve ever seen.” M. plans to remain in China for the long term, probably because of the warm feelings he has for the country and its people.
A., who is originally from Yemen, is studying Engineering and Chinese. He chose to study in China on the recommendation of some of his friends, and with the support of a scholarship he obtained with the help of a family friend. A. recounted that the reactions of some Chinese when told he is a Muslim were not positive — reactions he initially found dismaying but subsequently managed to overcome, thanks especially to having made Chinese friends. As previously mentioned, students from Yemen tend to remain in China, where opportunities for study and employment are more plentiful than in their home country. Accordingly, A. says that he “plans to stay in China as long as possible,” and dreams of his parents and the rest of his family joining him.
T., the Syrian student mentioned earlier, was met with reactions from Chinese that ranged from surprise — “We didn’t know there are students from there [exotic places]” — to open-minded acceptance. As with A.’s experience, the only tension he felt appeared to stem from the fact that he is a Muslim. He indicated that these sentiments were likely attributable to the problems between the Chinese government and the Muslim-Uighur minority in Xinjiang. T. also noted that, while some of his dark-skinned friends have encountered racist remarks, he has generally been warmly welcomed.
Meetings with two Iranian subjects, P. and R., took place separately in order to allow each of them to speak freely. R., a master’s degree student, is among the Iranian regime’s avid supporters. Therefore, for him to return to Iran upon graduation would be natural; only an exceptionally good employment opportunity could potentially keep him in China, which he says would in any case not be for too long. Given these plans and other personal reasons, R. did not really mix with Chinese. Most of his friends, including his roommates, are either Iranian or Pakistani. Nevertheless, he asserted, those Chinese with whom he came into contact were accepting of him. He further stated that he would advise friends to follow his example, which could improve their status in Iran’s tough job market. Throughout the conversation, R. continually referred to the positive bilateral relationship between China and Iran, praising the Chinese for their capacity to accept people from different countries and manage diplomatic and economic relations with Iran and “even with Saudi Arabia.”
P. is a female of Iranian origin whose personal background, current circumstances, and plans differ markedly from those of R. She works for a business owned by her family that operates in China, and she chose to live in Shanghai because “it is cool here and there are unlimited social and business opportunities in this city.” Thus, P’s decision to relocate to China appears to have been greatly influenced by her family’s desire to expand their business to China and establish a stake there. Unlike R.’s view of China-Iran relations, P. stressed that there is a wide gap between how the media portrays the bilateral relationship and its actual status. She characterized the attitudes of Chinese officials and procedures governing the entry of Iranian nationals to China as hostile. She plans to stay in China for as long as she feels comfortable with the people that surround her.
A. is the brother of E. A. from Egypt. He lives in Yunnan province, where he is employed as a dentist. A. chose to study and work in China because it is “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and it is a well-developed country.” A. says that he and his friends were warmly accepted, and that many of his patients know about Egypt and its long, important history. E. A. commented that her brother mixed well with the locals; and that there are many Chinese patients who prefer that he treat them, as opposed to the local doctors.
A. M. relocated from Aleppo to Yiwu, China’s commercial capital, in order to expand the family business. He indicated that the Chinese people with whom he has been involved, whether for business or friendship, warmly accept him. On the other hand, he says that some perceive his presence as solely for business purposes, and regard him as posing an economic threat. Although A. M. would someday like to return to Syria to live, he expects to remain in China until the conflict in his home country wanes.
The reasons why young people from the Middle East are gravitating to China vary. As this small sample of interviewees indicates, students and young professionals from the region find China appealing for all sorts of personal reasons. Yet, at the same time, it is possible to draw some broad, tentative conclusions about why they chose to relocate to China. For some, whose native home is plagued by conflict, as is the case in Syria and Yemen, China offers an improvement in their personal security and economic standard of living. For others, such as those from Egypt, where the employment market is discouraging, students and young professionals view China as a possible gateway to economic opportunities otherwise not available to them.
Similarly, though each respondent’s experiences in China are unique, there nonetheless appears to be general agreement regarding how they have been treated by their Chinese hosts. Overall, the interviewees reported that citizens originating from the Middle East are well received by ordinary Chinese. Though some provided accounts of less than positive experiences in obtaining visas or conducting banking transactions, at a personal level — with few, if any exceptions — they found the Chinese with whom they interacted to be hospitable, respectful and open. Based on these anecdotal accounts, it therefore seems as though China will continue to be an attractive destination for many young people from the Middle East for the foreseeable future. In the long run, this phenomenon could prove to have been a fruitful investment, helping buttress the increasingly extensive relations between China and the Middle East.
 The interviews and conversations dealt primarily with those young people’s choice to spend time in China, the reactions this choice elicited among those from their country of origin, and the extent to which they felt accepted by Chinese society. The interviewees are identified by pseudonyms (i.e., by the first letter of their name, and in some cases by the first letter of their surname, in order to differentiate between them and maintain their privacy). The interviewees have not been chosen as a representative scientific sample, but rather on the basis of word of mouth introductions, with an eye toward forming a diverse group.