As the quality of higher education in China improves, more international students are attracted to prestigious Chinese universities. Photo: IC

Controversy over international students’ “privilege” in China has returned to the spotlight on Chinese social media after a university in East China’s Shandong Province was reported to have “allocated” three study buddies for each international student. 

Reports went viral on Sina Weibo recently, saying that the Ji’nan-based Shandong University (SDU) allocated 141 buddies for 47 international students in 2018 and most of the buddies were female, while their international partners were male. 

The reports showed an alleged list of these students, on which the Global Times reporter found no indication of gender. The widely circulated list could not be found on the SDU’s website. 

The reports triggered heated discussions on social media, with many netizens wondering why one international student needs so many buddies. Some even asked if the university was looking for mates for international students. 

The SDU did not reply to the Global Times as of press time, but an alleged statement released by the university on Sunday spread on the internet said its buddy program was aimed at promoting the studies of domestic and international students and was carried out voluntarily. 

It also noted that the buddy program is common in many Chinese colleges to promote communication between domestic and international students.

An anonymous member of staff from the Office of International Cooperation and Exchanges of Nanjing University (NJU), Jiangsu Province confirmed with the Global Times that they had been carrying out the buddy program for many years. 

“The program is being conducted by two students’ associations at our university to help domestic and international students find partners in language learning,” she said. 

The staff member said that students involved in the program would hold events on holidays as well as parties to welcome and bid international students goodbye. 

According to a Vietnamese student at NJU named Hieu Minh, partners involved in the program would set a main topic each week for their communication, including self-introduction, hometown dishes and ideal careers.

Many students from Beijing-based colleges, like Peking University and Beijing Language and Culture University, reached by the Global Times reporter also said buddy programs were common in colleges for international students who wanted to learn more about China and domestic students who wanted to practice a foreign language. 

It is also common in foreign colleges, a Beijing-based female worker surnamed Xu, who once studied at Hosei University in Tokyo, told the Global Times. 

“Such program not only helped me learn Japanese better but also helped me understand and integrate in the local life faster,” Xu said. 

Discussions on the SDU issue expanded to a long-standing controversy over foreigners’ “privilege” in the country, when a male international student in Fuzhou, Fujian Province pushed a police officer multiple times who stopped him on the street for illegally carrying a person on electric scooter but was released after being criticized. Many netizens said it was too light a punishment. 

Fuzhou police said on Wednesday that they did not punish him harshly because he was still a student. 

Some administrative and law enforcement departments, especially at the local level, are not familiar with handling cases involving foreigners, though an increasing number of foreigners are studying and working in China, said analysts. 

While some people and organizations are still taking foreigners as guests and avoiding treating them in a harsh or impolite manner, it does not mean that foreigners should enjoy preferential treatment in China, Zhou Guoqing, a commentator who has nearly 1.4 million followers and goes by Dianfengjuanke on Sina Weibo, told the Global Times. 

Newspaper headline: ‘Buddy system’ sparks uproar