A woman from Timor-Leste, a small island country in Southeast Asia, is studying chemistry in eastern China on a government-sponsored scholarship.
After she sang China’s praises in an interview for giving her enough money to not only study in China but also support her family back home, many Chinese saw it as a reflection of deep social injustices caused by the communist authorities.
In a video interview spread on Chinese social media, the young woman said the scholarship she received from the Chinese government is generous enough to pay all her bills and also remit some back to Timor-Leste to feed her family. According to official statistics, the Chinese government gives each qualified international student 59,200 to 99,800 yuan ($8,540–$14,400) each year to cover tuition, living expenses, and medical insurance.
“My family hasn’t given me any money. It’s me who gives them money,” the young Timor-Leste girl said in the video, while speaking Chinese. “The scholarship is my income.”
The woman said she’s realizing her father’s dream. In Timor-Leste, her father suffered due to poverty and couldn’t go to school. Now, even as a full-time student, she can still support her father. The woman says she plans to go back home to be a teacher after graduating from the university in the city of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province.
“China is a developed country … the speed of development in China is faster than any other country,” the Timorese woman said. “Our country gained independence in 2002. The highest building in our country is only seven stories.”
However, many Chinese netizens had a different take. Millions of young Chinese can’t afford tuition and are forced into the workforce immediately after finishing public school. The interview with the woman from Timor-Leste sparked widespread criticism of Chinese authorities for doling out scholarships to foreigners, while failing to secure the welfare of Chinese.
According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, there were more than 3 million poor rural Chinese whose annual income was less than 2,300 yuan ($332) by the end of 2017. Most children in those families can’t even afford to go to primary school.
In May 2013, the All-China Women’s Federation said that there were more than 61 million children in China whose parents had left them in rural areas, in order to find urban employment. Most of these “left-behind” children, as they are known, are unable to receive a proper education.
In China, a university education is difficult to come by. In 2016, just 39 percent of the total of 19.1 million children who were aged 17 that year entered a university. And even for Chinese students who are academically qualified and whose families are affluent enough, their lives on campus are totally different from those of international students. In June, a related video, titled “One Country, Two Dorms,” caused a stir throughout Chinese society.
An English speaker interviewed 12 students from two universities, half of whom were international students, and the other half Chinese. The interviewer found that Chinese students lived in a shared, crowded and shabby room with limited hot water, limited electricity, and have curfews, while international students were given modern and comfortable rooms with unlimited Wi-Fi, hot water, electricity, and other services.
In January 2015, China’s Ministry of Finance released new standards in Chinese government scholarships for international students. International students can receive 59,200 to 99,800 yuan per year. If students take classes completely in English, they will receive 5,000 yuan more.
The Chinese Ministry of Education said in July 2018 that of the 480,000 international students in China in 2017, almost 12 percent of them received government scholarships. Some 30,000 international students who received scholarships were from Africa.