In a classroom in northern Iraq, Zhiwei Hu directs his students like an orchestra conductor. He asks a question and his students’ response resonates in perfect, fluent Chinese.
The 52-year-old taught the cohort of 14 Iraqi Kurdish students at the request of the Chinese consulate in the northern city of Erbil.
Her class is part of an experiment with the local Salahaddin University: if these students are successful in graduating, the Chinese language department will officially open for enrollment, helping the growing plethora of Chinese businesses in the area Iraqi Kurds to be hired.
Regin Yasin is seated in the front. “I wanted to learn Chinese because I know China will have the upper hand in the future,” said the 20-year-old student. “China will expand here, that’s why I chose it.”
China’s interests in Iraq, rooted in energy to meet its growing needs, are expanding. Beijing is building power plants, factories, water treatment facilities, as well as much-needed schools across the country.
Dozens of contracts signed in recent years ensure China’s growing footprint, even as major Western companies, including the United States, prepare to exit. While Iraqi officials say they want a bigger US presence, they find appeal in China’s development offer with no conditions for democracy or reform and its skillful diplomacy.
“The language school is a projection of Chinese soft power, to familiarize the region with China. The more familiar they are, the more they will be attracted to Chinese products,” said Sardar Aziz, a researcher who recently wrote a book in Kurdish on Sino-Iraqi relations.
Chinese companies dominate Iraq’s key economic sector, oil, and Beijing consumes 40% of Iraq’s crude oil exports. But from a narrow focus on hydrocarbons, Chinese investments have grown to include other industries, finance, transport, construction and communications.
This change was spurred following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s announcement in 2013 of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, dubbed the New Silk Road, comprised of a wide range of initiatives of development and investment from East Asia to the Middle East to Europe. The United States views it as troubling, akin to a Trojan horse for Chinese expansion.
The initiative calls on China to develop its relations with states along its journey through political coordination, infrastructure connectivity, trade and financial integration and people-to-people ties.
In 2017, the Chinese consulate approached the College of Languages at Salahaddin University with the idea of a Chinese language department. Opening a school in the capital Baghdad carried security risks, but the Kurdish-ruled northern region was relatively safe.
At first, the university was unsure whether it would appeal to students or be able to find qualified instructors, said university dean Atif Abdullah Farhadi.
Farhadi therefore asked the consulate to provide and pay for teachers, textbooks, audio lab and other classroom technology and exchange opportunities in Beijing.
“They responded to all requests,” Farhadi said. The department opened in 2019 and is expected to graduate its first cohort next year. “Then we will expand.”
Students said learning to write in Mandarin, the official language of mainland China, was the hardest part. Thousands of special characters had to be memorized.
And then there was the pronunciation.
“Their tongues were quivering,” Hu said. After five hours of lessons, five times a week for three years, “they speak very well”.
Farhadi wants the same for the English language department; the US and UK consulates rarely offered help, he said.
“They don’t support us at all,” he said.
As China expands its economic footprint, Western oil companies shrink theirs. Many expressed dissatisfaction with Iraq’s risky investment environment and unfavorable contract terms.
US oil giant Exxon Mobil’s exit from the West Qurna 1 field last year came despite Iraqi pleas to stay, Oil Minister Ihsan Abduljabbar Ismail told The Associated Press at the time. The presence of a large American company in Iraq has long reassured other companies.
British Petroleum, operator of Iraq’s largest Rumaila oil field, plans to split its activities there with another entity jointly owned with China’s CNPC. Other oil companies, including Russia’s Lukoil, are demanding changes to the terms of the contract as a condition of staying.
Chinese companies dominate oil contracts, from field production to the provision of downstream services, and they continue to win more. Recently, Iraq finalized terms with China’s Sinopec to develop the Mansuriya gas field, which could produce 300 million standard cubic feet per day if approved by the next Iraqi government.
Investing in Iraq is a risk China is willing to take. With lower profit margins, Chinese companies are still offering more attractive contracts and lower prices, said industry officials and Iraqi officials.
Thursday is “Chinese Corner” in the language department.
Chinese companies – from oil to tapestry – come to meet students under the guise of practicing their language skills. Most end up with promises of future employment.
“We talk in Chinese and talk about business and the future,” said student Hiwar Saadi. “They come to us to meet and connect.”
Two students are already working part-time for a Chinese telecommunications company as translators.
“It’s the opposite in all the other departments of the university. The supply is high but the demand for jobs is low,” said Farhadi. “Here, students refuse job offers to focus on studies.”
The lessons also cover aspects of Chinese culture and history. Hu is quick to remind students of the golden past of Beijing and Erbil: Iraq was part of the ancient Silk Road trade route, linking China’s Han dynasty to the West.
A former Iraqi ambassador to Beijing, Mohammed Saber, said during his time there, Chinese officials often remembered their shared history. Many Chinese also remember how, in the 1950s, Iraq shipped tons of dates to China to help during the famine.
When Sabir took office in 2004, trade between Iraq and China was worth around half a billion dollars. When he left in 2010, it was $10 billion. Last year it reached around $30 billion.
“They need our oil and we need to find a market to sell our oil. The road goes both ways,” he said.
Yao Yan, a Beijing native selling Chinese-made goods at Langa Market in Erbil, agrees.
A small figure surrounded by heaps of handbags and shoes, she said Iraq offered her better economic prospects. She sends her earnings home to care for her disabled teenage son.
“Even when there is an economic crisis here,” she said, referring to last year’s liquidity crunch spurred by falling oil prices, “money is still good for the China”.
At the language school, Diaa Sherzad has just taken an oral exam.
The 21-year-old said he was still considering what to do next. “The most important thing is how I can serve my people. If I know Chinese, it will help me. For the future, for everything.