In Pakistan, Learning Chinese Is Cool — And Seen As A Path To Prosperity

Saleem Abbas is the kind of student who sits in the front row. He's the first to try to answer a question. He eagerly repeats the Mandarin expressions that his teacher throws at the class: "Is this your family or not?" he repeats after the teacher. Then: "I have a mother."

These lessons mean a lot to Abbas, a 17-year-old from a village deep in the Pakistani Himalayas. His father is a retired soldier, and his pension isn't enough to go around. Abbas, one of five siblings, lives with his uncle in a gritty town outside Islamabad, in a room that only contains a thin mattress, where he sleeps and studies. He calls his mother once a month — there's no Internet back home.

"Every month, I ask my mother about her health," he says in broken English. "She cries, but I don't cry."

His family has staked what little money they have on him. If he masters Mandarin, he can apply for a scholarship to study in China. And with a Chinese degree, he thinks he'll have a chance of getting a good job back in Pakistan as a fluent Mandarin speaker. Then he can pay for his younger brothers and sisters to get advanced educations.

In Pakistan, speaking Mandarin is now seen as a door to prosperity.

"Chinese is the language that can make Pakistan prosperous and help Pakistanis get a job," he says. "China can also help Pakistan move forward."

Abbas, who just finished his first year of beginning Mandarin at Islamabad's National University of Modern Languages, is part of a rush to master Mandarin across Pakistan. At least three prominent universities and three private school networks offer the language to hundreds of students. Much of this began in the past few years, after Beijing and Islamabad signed a memorandum of understanding that launched theChina-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015. It is an ambitious series of infrastructure projects worth more than $50 billion.

The mix of investment, loans and Chinese expertise is transforming Pakistan with new roads, metros, a port and power plants. Tens of thousands of Chinese have come to work on these projects. Officials say there's a demand for translators, lawyers and supervisors. But they need to speak Mandarin.

This reflects a profound transformation of Pakistan's relationship with China. The relationship goes back nearly seven decades, and for much of that time, it has been a high-level affair, controlled by military and senior government officials. The relationship centered on security and a loathing of their mutual neighbor, India. It is now also becoming a relationship among people.

"I think you start to have something that is a more sort of sustainable cultural basis for the relationship," says Andrew Small, the senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and author of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics. "It's just been so thin in the past. I think it will be interesting to see to what extent the kind of long-term national outlook does actually change."

At the university where Abbas studies, senior Mandarin lecturer Rashida Mustafa says Mandarin has been taught since the early 1970s. For most of that time, there were 20 students per class and three classes — two for beginners and one advanced. Most of the students were military officers, Mustafa says.

Now, there are 500 students studying Mandarin, and the university added morning and evening classes. From 10 teachers in 2014, they now have 40, alongside two volunteer teachers that the Chinese Embassy provides.

"This demand is becoming bigger and bigger," says Lijian Zhao, the embassy's deputy chief of mission. "From [the] embassy, we have a lot of requests. Many serious universities — they would like to open up Chinese classes and they need Chinese volunteers."

But they don't have enough teachers, Zhao says. To deal with this, the Chinese government and Chinese universities offered some 5,000 scholarships to Pakistanis in 2016, he says — more than to students from any other country.

China's hope is that some of the scholarship recipients will return home to teach Mandarin and create a sustainable Pakistani network for teaching the language.