Attracted by the scholarships and the dream of an overseas education, students from Africa have turned to China as their lab to gain an edge in knowledge and experience. Their numbers are fast increasing into the tens of thousands annually. Officially, China awards scholarships for the skills development Africa most needs. But it's also a way to strengthen its soft power on the continent. Most of the students enjoy the experience, but some Africans also complain about the quality of education.
On a chilly April day in Shanghai, Zambian student Violet Bwalya sat down in a cafe near Tongji University, one of the top schools in the country. It was lunchtime and the cafeteria on campus offered a variety of Chinese dishes. But the college freshman said she cooks her homestyle food herself most of the time.
She enrolled in Tongji University under a Chinese government scholarship in September 2013. She didn't know she would see so many people just like her.
"Yes, I didn't expect so much Africans here. So when I came I was shocked, a lot," she said.
The wide-eyed, 19-year-old Zambian was also amazed by China's development visible everywhere on the street.
"Yeah, the infrastructure, they are so cool, there are roads. Everything is just so cool. I don't know. Our country rarely has tall buildings," she said.
Like so many other African students on Chinese government scholarships, Bwalya will spend her first year learning the language, and then go to another university to study her major: medicine. All classes will be taught in Mandarin.
African students who have been in China for a longer time say the language barrier can render the entire academic program just a process to receive a piece of paper.
"Generally, I think the biggest challenge for an international student who comes to China to study English, an English course, is availability of lecturers who can actually speak English," said an African master student in Wuhan, central China, who studies in English.
He wanted to remain anonymous because he didn't want to be heard criticizing Chinese education publicly. He said that his professors can't answer his questions because they don't speak English and he doesn't speak much Chinese either. His friend complained that it's too easy for Africans to get a pass.
"Where I come from, you are really pushed by getting good grades. You are not going to get a 90 by just showing up or just going to the exam. But here when you come, they just give you 90s. For them it's like you want the paper, so they give you the paper and you go home," says another Ugandan student.
A positive experience overall
Most African students, however, think positively of their experience in China.
Juma Salum from Zanzibar, Tanzania is pursuing a Ph.D in political science at Shanghai's International Studies University. Despite the challenging cold weather, he enjoys his studies very much. Like most African students in China, he wants to return after graduation to help his country.
"I feel I have a burden to return to my country," he said. "And the most things to do is to work hard to the government, to support my government, to support my society and to be a link between the Chinese people and the Tanzanian people and the African people."
And Salum is setting a trend that is growing exponentially.
In 2012, China's Department of Foreign Assistance at the Ministry of Commerce said it hosted more than 27,000 students from Africa. By the end of 2013, there were over 35,000 African students in China.