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Chinese lecturer Zhiwei Hu speaks to students in the Chinese language department at Salahaddin University in Irbil, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Khalid Mohammed/AP hide caption
Chinese lecturer Zhiwei Hu speaks to students in the Chinese language department at Salahaddin University in Irbil, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2021.
IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — In a classroom in northern Iraq, Zhiwei Hu presides over his students as a conductor would an orchestra. He cues with a question, and the response from his students resounds in perfect, fluent Chinese. The 52-year-old has been teaching the cohort of 14 Iraqi Kurdish students at the behest of the Chinese consulate in the northern city of Irbil. His class is part of an experiment with the local Salahaddin University: If these students succeed in graduating, the Chinese Language Department would be officially open for enrollment, giving the growing plethora of Chinese companies in Iraq's Kurdish region their pick for hires.
Regin Yasin sits at the front. "I wanted to learn Chinese because I know China will have an upper hand in the future," the 20-year-old student said. "China will expand here, that's why I chose it." China's interests in Iraq, anchored in energy to quench its growing needs, are expanding. Beijing is building power plants, factories, water treatment facilities, as well as badly needed schools across the country. Dozens of contracts signed in recent years ensure China's growing footprint, even as major Western companies, including the U.S., plot their exit. While Iraqi officials say they desire a greater U.S. presence, they find appeal in China's offer of development without conditions for democracy or reform and its deft diplomacy."The language school is a projection of Chinese soft power, to familiarize the region with China. The more familiar they are, the more attracted they will be to Chinese goods," said Sardar Aziz, a researcher who recently wrote a Kurdish-language book about China-Iraq relations. Chinese companies dominate Iraq's key economic sector, oil, and Beijing consumes 40% of Iraq's crude exports. But from a narrow focus on hydrocarbons, Chinese investments have grown to include other industries, finance, transport, construction and communications.
The shift was spurred following Chinese President Xi Jinping's 2013 announcement of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, dubbed the new Silk Road, composed of a vast array of development and investment initiatives from East Asia through the Middle East to Europe. The U.S. considers it unsettling, akin to a Trojan horse for Chinese expansion. The initiative calls for China to develop relations with states along its path through political coordination, infrastructure connectivity, trade and financial integration, and people-to-people bonds. In 2017, the Chinese consulate approached Salaheddin University's College of Languages in 2017 with the idea of a Chinese language department. Opening a school in the capital Baghdad came with security risks, but the northern Kurdish-run region was relatively secure.At first, the university wasn't sure it would appeal to students or that it could find qualified instructors, the college's dean, Atif Abdullah Farhadi, said.So Farhadi required the consulate to provide and pay for teachers, textbooks, an audio lab and other classroom technologies and exchange opportunities in Beijing. "They fulfilled all of the demands," said Farhadi. The department opened in 2019 and is set to graduate its first cohort next year. "Then we will expand."
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