African students in China protest for a little cash

At their Embassy in Beijing since Feb. 2, Sierra Leoneans seek stipends from home.

The Sierra Leone Embassy here has been quietly occupied for two weeks by protesting university students who say things might get ugly if their demands are not met.

"If they throw us out, if they provoke us, then the inevitable outcome will be violence," says one of the Sierra Leone students who have camped out since Feb. 2 in the modest building in Beijing's leafy embassy district.

The demands? The 34 Sierra Leonean students in China want their government to pay their living expenses, several years in arrears, and enable them to send their textbooks - now stored in a shipping container on the embassy grounds - back home.

Since the 1960s, African students have come to China as part of the political courtship between countries. China eagerly sought diplomatic recognition and increased global stature from newly independent African states. During the 1970s, China's involvement peaked with massive infrastructure projects across the continent. China still sees itself as a player in Africa and has invited regional leaders to a Pan-African summit in Beijing this fall.

China courting Africa

"As developing countries," China and African nations "face the same challenges," Liu Guijin, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs African section, told state media.

Over the years, the links grew as a stream of scholarship students came to China with the goal of going home to help rebuild their African countries. China waived tuition, offered a modest stipend, and the students' native countries also chipped in.

But this past decade, that spirit of cooperation has had to tangle with the tide of free-market reform. Cash-strapped universities, once free for everyone, started charging tuition and aggressively courting wealthier students from Europe and Asia.

The central government still offers some 904 full scholarships a year, mostly to students from developing countries. At the same time, many students, particularly from countries like war-torn Sierra Leone, find their home countries too preoccupied with other problems to bother paying their stipends.

So far the Sierra Leonean students have kept their protests low-key, being careful to avoid involving the Chinese government. "We have sent faxes, made phone calls, and we get no response," says Sahr Aruna, recipient of a doctorate in high-temperature super conductivity from Nanjing University. He believes he's the first person from his country to pursue his area of expertise, and hopes to teach it back home. "We are studying here in China for three or four years. After we graduate, we are expected to go home to contribute to nation-building. How can we do that without our books? This is not an unreasonable request," says Mr. Aruna. "We are peace-loving; we love our country. We have decided not to use violence and confrontation. We will use the media."

Seekers of education

Observers note that Sierra Leone is in particular need of an educated elite. The country has been rocked by a string of violent coups leading to foreign intervention to stop the cycle. Finding textbooks and research papers in such an environment is nearly impossible, the students say.

The Africans must also contend with a welcome that's less than warm in China, encountering intense discrimination from xenophobic Chinese. In the southern city of Nanjing, where there is a sizeable black student population, authorities have had to intervene to quell racial disturbances. Even in Beijing, blacks are eyed warily.

Nonetheless, coming to China for many of these students offers them the only chance they have to pursue their chosen studies.

The Sierra Leone students say they need the $66 a month they get from their government for food and incidentals. In addition, the Chinese government provides from $100 to $200 a month. A typical Chinese college student's expenses are about $60 a month, with tuition between $200 and $300 a semester. But the foreign students say they are levied higher surcharges by the schools and have to send money to their families back home.

"We're willing to stay here until the world hears our cry," Aruna says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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