Chinese schools are booming in Cambodia, locals say, as parents seek a leg up for their children amid growing business opportunities with China, the country’s largest trading partner and major aid provider.
More Cambodian parents are sending their children to be educated in Chinese because they see it as a key language for business in Cambodia’s future, said Chea Chengkhun, the principal of a Chinese school in Phnom Penh.
“The language will help to develop this country. It will also help our economy. We will have better living standards because we know Chinese,” he said.
He said Chinese schools like his are becoming popular and there are now about 70 to 80 nationwide, with 50 to a few hundred students each.
The schools originally served Cambodians of Chinese descent, who make up one of the country’s largest ethnic minorities.
Numbering about 500,000 today, according to the country’s Chinese Association, the Chinese Cambodians are prominent in the country’s business community.
Under the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodian Chinese fled the country and Chinese-language schools were forbidden, but now the schools operate openly, using a mix of Cambodian and foreign curriculum, Chengkhun said.
The schools are seeing more enrolment among non-Chinese Cambodians because of the lucrative language skills they provide for opportunities, he said.
One ethnic Khmer father, Vatt Tanak, said that the prevalence of business from China in Cambodia played a role in his decision to send his two children to a Chinese school.
“I can see my children are learning there. I placed them in the school partly because of the Chinese markets here,” he said.
China itself has supported the growing interest in its language, sending groups of volunteers on one-year assignments to teach the language in Cambodia beginning in 2010.
As Cambodia’s largest trade partner and investor, China has also invested in hydropower dams, mineral resources, the garment industry, banking and finance, tourism, and agriculture in the country.
Trade between the two countries reached about U.S. $2.5 billion in 2011.
But Chinese language is important not only for business with China, but also with other countries who use the language, Chengkhun said.
“The investors who come from Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong don’t speak Khmer and they need translators,” he explained.
Ing Hong Meng, vice president of the Chinese Association, said that Chinese was an important language for Cambodians because it is used worldwide.
“The Chinese language is so popular and Chinese people are everywhere in the world,” he said.
But education in the language is still not as popular in Cambodia as studying English, Chengkhun said.
Mong said the students hope learning Chinese, in addition to English, will improve their job prospects, including in the country’s booming textile industry.
“For any business communication they need Chinese language. In the garment factories, they need translators,” he said.
Tourism, Cambodia’s second-largest industry after garment manufacturing, is another growing area where Chinese-language skills may be needed, as the country aims to attract more tourists from China.
Cambodia’s tourism ministry has said it hopes to draw one million Chinese tourists by 2020 and plans to disseminate more information on Chinese-language websites.
“In the future, there will be more direct flights from China. We have to do everything with Chinese markets in mind, such as publishing books in Chinese and making Chinese-language websites,” Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said.
In 2011, Cambodia saw almost 300,000 tourists from China, which the ministry sees as Cambodia’s biggest market in Asia Pacific after the European Union, Khon said.
Reported by Sok Serey and Mondul Keo for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.