Plans for 100 Chinese language teachers to arrive in Nepal are causing uneasiness among some Nepali and international experts, who see it as a neocolonial bid by China to exert greater control over its Himalayan neighbor.
The Kathmandu Post newspaper reported this week on the plan, which coincides with a high-profile visit to the country last weekend by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reports said the goal is to have the Chinese language taught in every public school in Nepal.
The paper quoted government officials saying wider use of Chinese will help the economy by attracting more Chinese tourists. But not everyone is convinced.
Kapil Shrestha, a professor of political science at the University of Nepal, sees a parallel to the period of British colonial rule in India, Nepal’s other neighbor.
“Why did the British try to popularize English in India in 18th and 19th century?” Shrestha asked in an interview with VOA. “China is trying to popularize the Chinese language, which has long-term implications for Nepal.”
Sumit Ganguly, a South Asia expert and professor at Indiana University in the United States, is also skeptical about the plan.
“I think the Nepalese elite should understand what’s going on. This is clearly an attempt by China to extend its tentacles into Nepal,” Ganguly told VOA.
There are already 85 private and public schools offering Chinese-language courses in Nepal, according to the Kathmandu Post. Some private schools have made Chinese language studies compulsory, but in most cases the teaching is coordinated by Chinese-sponsored Confucius Institutes.
The Chinese government also encourages Nepali students to study in China, providing each student with $360 a month for living expenses, according to the Nepali Times newspaper. It said 6,400 Nepali students flew to China to study in 2017, the last year for which the figures are available.
Ganguly sees the Chinese initiative in terms of Beijing’s great-power rivalry with India, which has long had deep cultural and political ties with Nepal. “One of the principle objectives is to reduce India’s influence and footprint” in Nepal, he said.
India has long been the main source of food, fuel and other necessities in land-locked Nepal, a relationship that came under severe strain when cross-border commerce was halted for four months in 2015. India blamed the cut-off on disturbances inside Nepal but many Nepalis remain resentful toward India, creating an opening for China.
“Nepalese have every right to raise that issue because Indians handled the whole issue extraordinarily clumsily and they deserve what they got,” said Ganguly.
Shrestha, at the University of Nepal, said the experience left many Nepalis feeling their country has nowhere to turn for help except to China.
“The United States is no longer an important global player. The U.S. even in the past didn’t have much stake in Nepal, and now it seems even [other] developed countries are [too busy] with their own problems,” he said. “So, China is taking advantage of that.”
Government efforts to please China were especially evident in the lead-up to Xi’s two-day visit, with reports that at least 18 people were arrested for wearing t-shirts with the slogan, “Free Tibet.” Many Tibetan exiles living in Nepal told VOA that they didn’t dare leave their homes for those two days, fearing arrest.
Shrestha, a former member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, said two Tibetans who sell the t-shirts in small shots are still in jail. “They can’t sell such t-shirts in China, but now they can’t do it in Nepal either,” Shrestha said.