Zipporah Bvalani hoped that when she got home to Malawi after studying in China under a highly regarded Chinese government bursary scheme she would immediately begin working as a chemical engineer.
Instead, the 23-year-old from Blantyre said she had to start studying from scratch once she got home, as she had learned very little and acquired few engineering skills during her 18-month stint at the Taiyuan University of Technology in Shanxi Province.
She also said the university authorities had inflated her marks to make them look better than they were, and that many beneficiaries were children of Malawi’s political elite.
These complaints were echoed by other graduates of the bursary programme who spoke to amaBhungane
The main stumbling block, Bvalani said, was the language.
“We had just one year’s preparation for lectures in Chinese,” she said. “Sadly, all my early preparation was almost useless when I began engineering lessons.”
Bvalani arrived in China in September 2014 after earning high grades in the International General Certificate of Secondary Education and A-levels through the Cambridge Board Secondary School examinations, which she took at the private Kamuzu Academy in Kasungu.
After studying Chinese for a year, she said she did well in her HSK Level 4 test, a requirement for foreign students intending to study at a Chinese university.
But as the first and only foreign student in the university’s department of chemistry and chemical engineering, Bvalani struggled with the language used in lectures from the outset.
Bvalani said she also discovered that her results were inflated, apparently to make it seem that her studies were progressing well. This had become clear when she compared her actual exam marks with the transcript she received, recording her year’s performance.
The international students’ department at the university lowered the pass mark to 30% to accommodate her, but this only left her feeling more disappointed and frustrated.
She also felt unhappy about being conscripted into a two-week programme of quasi-military training that was a requirement for all students at the university.
Bvalani said that one of the conditions for the scholarship was that the return air tickets issued by the Chinese government only became useable once foreign students have complete their courses, which can take as long as five years.
If students wish to bail out before then, the return tickets must be privately paid for.
Bvalani tried to leave China after her first semester but was advised by her family and her Malawian peers to work harder. Finally, after two-and-a-half years in China, she decided to cut short her studies and go home.
In her final letter of withdrawal that she wrote to the Malawi Embassy and the China Scholarship Council on June 5 2017, she said that in order to become a good engineer for her country, she needed to know what she was learning. “Therefore, I would like to withdraw and seek tertiary education elsewhere,” she wrote.
When Bvalani told them she wanted to leave, she said university officials offered to fund her to recruit more students from Malawi and to help her start a business exporting Chinese goods to Malawi as an inducement to stay.
She suspected that this was because the university did not want to forfeit the subsidy paid by the government for foreign students. “I declined because I was not going to be bribed at the expense of my future,” she said.
Having decided to go home, Bvalani had to find resources to fund her return air ticket. Back in Malawi after two-and-a-half years in China, she started studying chemical engineering from scratch. She is now a second-year student at the Malawi University of Science and Technology.
”I was so excited I was going to study abroad”
Another student, who ditched her bursary and started afresh in Malawi, called it a day after studying medicine for two years in China.
Josephine (not her real name) was the beneficiary of an arrangement between the Chinese government and Malawi’s privately owned Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), under which high-performing female students were sent to study in China under a programme called the ZBS Best Girl awards.
The student in question, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she was selected under this initiative in 2014 after attaining the highest possible score in the 2013 Malawi School Certificate of Examination.
Josephine, at that time only 17, said that winning a scholarship to do her tertiary education in China and leaving for the Far East in September 2014 felt like a dream come true.
“I was so excited I was going to study abroad. Everything to do with my studies in China was well arranged with the help of the ZBS, my parents and the Chinese Embassy,” she said. “I believed China would bring the best out of me.”
On arriving in the new country, she was warmly welcome by officials at the Malawian Embassy in Beijing and moved to Shandong University, where she was scheduled to study Chinese for a year.
She sat the language proficiency exam in her second semester, and said she performed well.
But she discovered that this preparation was woefully inadequate when the China Scholarship Council moved her to the medical school at Jiamusi Medical University to begin her medical studies.
Josephine said she would never forget her first day in class. “I literally got nothing out of what was being taught,” she recalls. “I just couldn’t understand the lecturer.”
She had heard from other Malawian students how hard classes were to follow in Chinese, but thought they were exaggerating. “I thought they were lazy and not as smart as me,” she recalls ruefully.
The deeper she got into her studies, she said, the more confused and frustrated she became. She began to realise that her one year of language study was designed for basic communication, not for following advanced scientific instruction.
Josephine said other students from earlier cohorts wrote numerous letters to the ZBS and later to the Chinese Scholarship Council in Beijing recounting her experience and asking if she could be transferred to an English-medium university but was merely told to give up the scholarship.
She resorted to learning by watching YouTube videos and tried to source English translations of the Chinese text books they were using, to no avail.
After two years, she withdrew and returned to Malawi where, like Bvalani, she restarted her medical studies from scratch. Now 22, she is currently in her third year at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine.
Josephine said that graduates of the bursary scheme were not trusted to begin working as doctors in Malawi until they underwent a further year’s orientation.
Preference for Chinese students
Wezzie Kamanga says she wrote to the ZBS complaining about her unpleasant experience in China after travelling to the country in early September 2011 as one of the second batch of ZBS Best Girl Award students.
Kamanga stuck it out and graduated after a year of studying Chinese at Shandong and five years studying medicine at Southeast University in Nangjing city. But she said she had faced enormous difficulties, particularly in regard to writing in Chinese characters.
She claimed foreign students did not have the necessary orientation and suffered from a lack of information and the lecturers’ preference for Chinese students.
“We were not informed of when our classes would start and missed lots of lectures in the first year due to a lack of information,” she remembers.
The lecturer who was supposed to help and advise them told them he was only responsible for Chinese students, while the foreign students’ office claimed to be responsible only for foreigners who were learning in English.
Classes were a serious challenge. “We could not understand most of the stuff, because in language school we only learned basic Chinese, as compared to the scientific Chinese that was used in lectures,” Kamanga said.
Lecturers had greeted them with the words: “Foreign students don’t pass my exams!”
She said the Malawians continued to struggle, but that their enthusiasm eventually began to wane.
“Most of my classmates resorted to skipping classes and studying on their own from English textbooks. These were not much help as they did not cover the same ground as the ones in Chinese,” she said.
She said they tried translating word for word, which was time-consuming. The Malawians’ grades fell below expectations and soon, failing became the order of the day.
She said they tried to seek help from the Malawian Ministry of Education and Chinese Embassy officials but received no response.
“Most of us were psychologically disturbed, especially with Chinese classmates making fun of us and our shattered hopes of a better education in China. Our days were spent in a state of emotional and physical weariness; it felt as if our efforts were not paying off,” she said.
Kamanga said another problem was the lack of clinical experience, as medical students at Southeast University were only allowed into hospitals in their final year.
She said that as she was about to enter her fourth year she returned to Malawi on holiday and attached herself to Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe.
There, she was shocked by how much she did not know. She said she could not compare with her third-year counterparts from the College of Medicine at the University of Malawi in terms of either knowledge or clinical experience.
Even the little that she knew was in Chinese, so it was hard to understand and communicate with other medical staff.
Yohane (not his real name) – a Masters student who also asked not to be identified – echoed the claim that grades for foreign students were inflated.
He said he was disappointed with his MA degree certificate because he had not studied some of the courses he was credited with.
These included a course in environmental politics which he had never studied, but where he was given an 80% score in his final results.
In addition, the lecturers did not seem to keep records of students’ marks for assignments and exams because the students themselves were asked to provide them.
“I was self-reporting my own grades to a gentleman who was recording my grades on the transcript and I could easily have lied,” he said. “Fortunately, my results weren’t bad.
“The system is so confused and unprofessional.”
On one occasion after Yohane delayed submitting an assignment, the system reflected an 80% score even before the lecturer received it. He said he found this frustrating because he had put his heart and soul into the work and expected to be genuinely rewarded.
As a Masters student Yohane said most of his courses were offered in English. However, fellow Malawians taking undergraduate courses in Chinese complained that they understood only 10% of what they were being taught.
“You have to be a super genius to learn a foreign language within a year and then use it as a language of communication in medicine,” he said.
He recalled that everyone in his class passed their courses, including colleagues from Kazakhstan, Korea and Thailand who understood no English. “It was funny how they managed to do their assignments,” he laughed.
He said that for one gender studies assignment, a non-English speaker simply downloaded a biography of German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the internet and got 90% for it.
As an undergraduate at the University of Malawi, where he had studied before going to China, his average grade was 60%, while his minimum exam result for his Masters was 85%.
“The school was so concerned with making us pass that they ignored our failures. They ignored our real capacities and just rubber-stamped a grade for us,” he said.
Yohane also alleged that there were efforts to indoctrinate foreign students in Chinese political philosophy, which included attempts by academics and the school to portray China as “saintly”.
When students disputed claims that the country is a democracy, the lecturers would fume, he said.
“There was no academic freedom in the classes – you couldn’t speak or write about many things. You had to go for neutral subjects because you didn’t want to offend anyone.”
Connected to high-ranking government members
None of the seven scholarship beneficiaries we spoke to were chosen by the foreign affairs department. They and three journalists, who have visited China, told amaBhungane that many bursary students are connected to high-ranking members of Malawi’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the government.
They said this reflects the three-pronged system of recruitment for Chinese bursaries: one in which the foreign affairs ministry handpicks candidates; a second in which China reaches agreements with the government and private institutions; and a third in which candidates are invited in the media to apply to the Chinese Embassy online.
The ministry appeared to favour politically connected candidates, they said.
They also alleged that the students chosen by the Malawian government required less stringent entrance qualifications.
One student said he was in a group of about 18 students of which about eight were related to officials in the government and DPP.
A senior journalist in Malawi said when they visited Chinese universities in 2010, they noticed that many Malawian scholars were the children or relatives of ruling party politicians, principal secretaries or other senior government officials.
Asked for details of the bursary programme, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Cui Jian Feng said that since the programme was initiated in about 2013 more than 900 Malawian students have studied in China.
Feng said the embassy has no follow-up mechanism to assess how graduates fared when they were back in Malawi.
When amaBhungane raised students’ criticisms of the programme – including allegations that language was a major barrier, results are inflated, lecturers are biased against foreigners, and the children of senior Malawian politicians and officials are favoured for scholarships – he declined to comment.
“I and other officials from the embassy cannot respond to your questions because we are very busy,” he said. “There are few staff members at the embassy, so everyone is busy all the time.”
At least four other attempts to obtain comment from the embassy were unsuccessful.
AmaBhungane also spoke to a representative of the China Scholarship Council in Malawi who identified herself only as Cecilia. She confirmed that she had received questions via WhatsApp but was not willing to answer these or telephonic questions.
Attempts to solicit comment from the Chinese Ministry of Education in China, based in Damucang Hutong, Xicheng District, Beijing, were also unsuccessful.
The person taking the phone call answered in Chinese and did not appear to speak English.
Although the ZBS Best Girl programme still operates, it no longer sends students to China.
Former bursary recipients said that after amaBhungane put questions to it about the scholarship programme, the broadcaster called an impromptu get-together with all students whose study it had facilitated in China, attended by Chinese Ambassador to Malawi Liu Hu Yang and the education ministry’s principal secretary, Justin Saidi.
They said that at the meeting, ZBS managing director Gospel Kazako made no reference to amaBhungane’s questions but criticised the way Chinese scholarships were awarded in Malawi as “dubious and imprudent”.
He allegedly called on the Chinese and Malawian authorities to do better.
The ambassador allegedly responded by insisting there was transparency in the award of scholarships.
Approached for comment, Kazako referred amaBhungane to the coordinator of the Best Girl Award, Owen Lupeska.
Lupeska said those selected to pursue studies in China knew what was in store for them, and that girls were told as soon as they agreed to go that they would first have to learn Chinese.
He said that when some Malawian girls wrote petitions complaining about the language barrier, the ZBS, education ministry and student representatives met Chinese Embassy officials who told them it was the policy to teach undergraduates in Chinese.
“The ZBS had to ask parents or guardians to sign forms that they agreed to have their wards take up scholarships,” he said.
He said the broadcaster did not discontinue the programme, but that the Chinese had bailed out after 2014 when, at an award ceremony at which she had been asked to officiate, former Malawian president Joyce Banda announced that she would find scholarships in the US for the three best runners-up.
“This did not go down well with the Chinese Embassy. So, the following year  we heard nothing from them [about any scholarships],” he said.
Malawian Ambassador to China Charles Namondwe also refused to comment, referring questions to the foreign affairs ministry, “who will ably respond to you”.
The foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Rejoice Shumba, said the ministry was not aware of the predicament of students studying in China.
“We will be interested in getting to the root of these issues if they are true,” she said. “Such information will help us conduct thorough investigations and come up with durable solutions for the betterment of our country.”
She requested evidence, including the names of universities where Malawian students went through their alleged ordeal.
Shumba conceded that relatives of those in the government were among those who had benefited from the bursary programme.
“The government always ensures that ministries, departments and [state] agencies provide qualified candidates that participate in these programmes,” she said. “However, other candidates could apply directly to adverts placed in the media, over which the government had no control.
“It is also premature to judge the productiveness of students who undertake Chinese scholarships,” she argued.
She said the government had regularly received compliments from former bursary students who had done well in their careers.
However, she said the ministry was in constant consultation with the Chinese government to discuss any challenges.