Most Thai students tend to pursue studies abroad either in the United States or Europe, which are regarded as open societies and champions of freedom. But some Thai students are walking a different path.
They are choosing China as their educational destination to learn how this developing country has transformed itself in four decades from a poor country to an economic powerhouse and the world’s second-largest economy.
[Related story: Why so many foreign students are flocking to China]
From left, Pongsathon Issarawattanakul, Patcharamai Sawanaporn, and Nalin Phongpuksa
“I’m impressed by how fast China is growing. I want to learn how to do business with Chinese people,” said Patcharamai Sawanaporn, 25, a postgraduate student at the Faculty of WTO, Law and Economics at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing.
When China kicked-off its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, the UIBE launched a BRI scholarship programme last year. Patcharamai is one of 17 international scholarship students benefiting from the BRI scholarships sponsored by the Chinese government.
Patcharamai likes the Chinese language because she is familiar with it. Her family traces its roots to China hence she studied the Chinese language since her childhood.
After graduating in international relations on China’s foreign policy from the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University, she worked for two years before applying for the BRI scholarship last year.
Unlike Patcharamai, Nalin Phongpuksa, 26, a postgraduate MBA student, Chinese programme, at the UIBE, was forced to learn Chinese. But it has all been worth it for she has now fallen in love with the country and its language.
Nalin said she was not interested in studying the Chinese language but 10 years ago, her mother – a Thai diplomat – forced her daughter to learn the language before her diplomatic posting for four years, as she wanted Nalin to prepare for life in Beijing. Nalin did her high school in China’s capital and later returned to Thailand with her mother.
Patcharamai Sawanaporn and her classmates at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics visit Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group headquarters in Hangzhou as part of their study programme.
After she graduated from Mahamakut Buddhist University and worked for two years in the field of logistics she came back to Beijing.
“China is growing rapidly as an economy and I think I could learn more from them. So last year I applied for a scholarship to come back to study here,” she said.
Both students found life in China was not very difficult, although in the beginning the language barrier was a problem as well as restrictions on accessing social media. But the Thai students have finally settled down and are enjoying the conveniences the country allows foreign students.
They have no problem with their host country’s restricted access to certain websites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. They have managed to find a way to bypass the restrictions and access online information and social media.
They rely on a VPN or Virtual Private Network, a secure tunnel between two or more devices, which enables them to keep in touch with the world outside China, as well as their families and friends in Thailand.
The VPN is a tool to protect private web traffic from snooping, interference and censorship.
When asked about their opinions of the “communist” regime in China, their responses were much the same.
“China’s socialism is Chinese-style democracy. They have a voting system to select top leaders in every level,” Patcharamai said.
At home in China
The students expressed no worry about living in the one-party state. They’ve got used to life in the host country, including China’s increasingly “cashless” society, where people are in the habit of carrying no cash in favour of a mobile phone when going out.
“I don’t find life hard here. Living in Beijing is more convenient than in Bangkok. Everything is so easy. There is good public transportation as well as the cashless society,” Patcharamai said.
Everybody here pays through mobile phones, she added. No matter how big or small the shops – even at those shops with elderly owners – they all accept mobile payment.
Pongsathon Issarawattanakul, 22, an undergraduate student of the Economics and Trade Faculty at UIBE, is enjoying the cashless society where he can buy things or order things online and pay by mobile.
“My life depends on mobile. It’s my survival kit. You will get some discounts or have a chance to win Ang Pao [gift money] whenever you use mobile payment,” he said.
Nalin said she felt lonely while living in China during her first visit due to the language barrier. She recalled crying almost every day at the challenges she faced as a 16-year-old girl who could not speak Chinese but had to take the subway to school by herself. At that time, only a few subway lines existed.
She, however, felt more relaxed at the prospect of her second residency last year, but was nervous to learn that China is a cashless society.
“I have never used mobile payment before so I was anxious whether I could survive or not. After adjusting myself to the new payment method, I now cannot stop shopping,” Nalin said with a smile.
Nalin Phongpuksa, left, and her Thai friend dressed in traditional Thai costume greet with a “wai” at a cultural festival held at the University of International Business and Economics, in Beijing in April.
However, when the students come home to visit, they do not take the habit with them.
“I do not use mobile payment in Thailand, Patcharamai said. “I feel it’s difficult, because I cannot pay money through just one or two applications like in China. No single app [in Thailand] covers all shops.”
The mobile-payment market in China is dominated by China’s two tech titans – Alipay of Alibaba-related Ant Financial Services Group and WeChat Pay of Tencent. Almost 100 per cent of the shops in China accept payment via the two apps.
Inspired by China’s cutting-edge initiatives, Patcharamai said after finishing her master’s degree next year she wanted to return to work in a business development area involving mobile payment.
“I want to bring back Chinese ideas to develop e-commerce or online payment systems in Thailand,” she said.
But Nalin said she was not certain whether she wanted to come back to Thailand after graduation.
“I think I can stay here for longer to develop myself. I may look for a job here,” she said.
But Pongsathon, who was sent to study Chinese in Beijing while in secondary school and has been there for 10 years, wants to shift his master’s degree studies to a European country.