How many Africans are studying in China?

When I tell people (in America) that I am studying African students in China, the first question I usually get is: are there African students in China?

Well, yes, there are. But how many?

Official data is difficult to find. The Chinese Ministry of Education reported that in 2006 there were 3,737 African students; a more recent report states that that number was 20,744 in 2010. Data on intervening years are scarce.

To supplement these figures, several scholars and journalists have made estimations (see Chart 1). While one journalist claims that there are as many 120,000 students, most find that there are somewhere between 15-30,000 (for years between 2009-2013). Brautigam’s figure for 2012 is lower, in part because she does not attempt to estimate students coming with funding other than Chinese government scholarships. This number could be significant: Bodomo and Allison’s estimates of students that are privately-funded range from 8,000 (2009) to 18,000 (2013), respectively. (Official figures do not distinguish between scholarships and self-funded students.)

Chart 1

While it may be impossible to get precise figures, the number of students coming from Africa to China to study is steadily increasing. This is certainly the case with (pledged) Chinese government scholarships: the scholarship commitments that the Chinese government makes to African governments increased from 4,000 per year in 2006 to 5,500 per year in 2009. While the most recent “action plan” does not specificy a new target, it does state:

6.2.5 China will continue to help African countries build educational and training facilities and provide more opportunities for short, medium and long-term training and scholarships.

In contrast, the number of African students in the United States – while probably higher in absolute values – is steady or even declining. Since 2002/2003 when the number of Africans studying in the US spiked, the number has decreased by an average 0.57% per year (see Chart 2).

Chart 2

Given these trends, it is plausible that the number of Africa students studying in China may soon surpass the number studying in the United States. There is a lot of talk of how China surpassing the US in various measures (e.g. GDP) is an indication of shifts in relative power. Does a shift in where students are going to study have any significance?


UPDATE (July 24, 2014): According to a recent statement by China’s MOFCOM, in 2013 the number of African students in China increased from 27,000 in 2012 to 35,000. If this is accurate, there may have been more African students studying in China than in the US.


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