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Chinese soft power in Iraq: Learn the language and get jobs

IRBIL (AP) -- Zhiwei Hu, a teacher in northern Iraq, watches over his students like an orchestra conductor. His students respond in fluent, perfect Chinese.

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Chinese soft power in Iraq: Learn the language and get jobs

The Chinese consulate in Irbil has ordered the 52-year-old to teach the 14 Iraqi Kurdish students.

This class is an experiment with Salahaddin University. If the students graduate, the Chinese Language Department will be open for enrollment. The growing number of Chinese companies in Iraq's Kurdish regions would have their choice of hiring.

Regin Yasin is at the front. The 20-year old student stated, "I wanted Chinese to learn because I know China will be the best in the future." "China will grow here, that's why i chose it."

China's interest in Iraq is expanding, with its energy resources to meet growing needs. Beijing is expanding its power plants, factories, water treatment and schools in the country.

Numerous contracts have been signed over the years to ensure China's expanding reach, even though major Western companies like the U.S. are planning their exit. Although Iraqi officials claim they want more U.S. presence in Iraq, they are drawn to China's willingness to develop without conditions for democracy and reform as well as its diplomatic skills.

The language school is a projection Chinese soft power to familiarize the region and China. Sardar Aziz, a Kurdish-language researcher, said that the more they are familiar with Chinese goods, the more they will be attracted to them." He recently published a book on China-Iraq relations in Kurdish.

China is the largest foreign investor in Iraq's main economic sector, oil. In fact, 40% of Iraqi crude exports are consumed by Beijing. Chinese investments are not limited to hydrocarbons. They now invest in other industries such as finance, transport and communications.

This shift was prompted by the 2013 announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. It is a vast array investment and development initiatives that span from East Asia to the Middle East and Europe. It is considered unsettling and a Trojan horse for Chinese expansion by the U.S.

China is encouraged to establish relations with other countries through political coordination, financial integration, infrastructure connectivity and people-topeople bonds.

The idea of a Chinese language department was proposed by the Chinese consulate to Salahaddin University's College of Languages in 2017. Although opening a school in Baghdad was fraught with security risks and difficult to secure, the northern Kurdish-run area was relatively safe.

Atif Abdullah Farhadi, college dean, stated that the university was initially unsure if it would be appealing to students and able to find qualified instructors.

So Farhadi requested that the consulate provide and pay teachers, textbooks, and an audio lab, as well as other classroom technologies, and exchange opportunities in Beijing.

Farhadi said, "They fulfilled all the requirements." The department was established in 2019, and its first class will graduate next year. "Then, we will grow."

Students said that learning Mandarin, the official language in mainland China, was the most difficult part. It was necessary to memorize thousands of special characters.

Then there was pronunciation.

Hu stated, "Their tongues trembled." They are now speaking well after five hours of lessons five times per week for three years.

Farhadi wished it could be the case for the English Language Department. The U.S. and British consulates had rarely offered assistance, he stated.

He said, "They don’t support us at any time."

China is expanding its economic footprint and Western oil companies are decreasing theirs. Many are dissatisfied with Iraq's unfavorable contract terms and risky investment environment.

According to Oil Minister Ihsan Abduljabbar Ismail, Exxon Mobil, the U.S. oil giant, pulled out of West Qurna 1 last year despite Iraqi pleas for it to stay. For many years, the presence of a large U.S. corporation in Iraq has served as a source of comfort for other companies.

British Petroleum, the operator of Rumaila, Iraq's largest oilfield, has plans to merge its business with another entity owned by CNPC in China. Other oil companies, such as Russia's Lukoil are requesting changes to the contract terms to allow them to continue.

Chinese companies continue to dominate oil contracts. They have the operating fields and provide downstream services. Recent agreements were reached between Iraq and China's Sinopec for the development of Mansuriya's gas field. If approved by Iraq's next government, it could produce 300,000,000 standard cubic feet per hour.

China is willing and able to take the risk of investing in Iraq. Chinese firms offer lower profit margins and more attractive contracts at lower prices, according to industry officials and Iraqi officials.

Thursday is the "Chinese Corner", language department

Chinese companies, from wallpapering to oil, come and meet students with the pretense of learning language skills. Many end up with future employment promises.

Hiwar Saadi, a student, said that they speak Chinese and discuss business and the future. They come to us to make connections and meet us.

As translators, two students work part-time at a Chinese telecom company.

"It's exactly the opposite in every department at the university. Farhadi stated that the demand for jobs is very low, but supply is high. "Here, students are refusing job offers to study and focusing on their studies."

The lessons also cover aspects of Chinese history and culture. Hu reminds students from Beijing and Irbil of their shared golden past. Iraq was once part of the ancient Silk Road trade route that linked China's Han Dynasty to the West.

Mohammed Saber, a former ambassador of Iraq to Beijing, stated that Chinese officials frequently recalled their common history during his time there. Many Chinese still remember how, in the 1950s to aid famine, tons of dates were shipped by Iraq to China.

In 2004, Iraq-China trade was worth around half a million dollars when Sabir started his job. It was around $10 billion when he left in 2010. It was close to $30 billion last year.

They need our oil and we must find a way to sell it. He said that the road leads to two ends.

Yao Yan, a Beijing native, sells Chinese-made products in Irbil’s Langa Market.

She is a small woman surrounded by handbags and shoes. She sends her earnings home to care for her disabled teenager son.

She said that even though there is an economic crisis in China, she was referring to the liquidity crisis last year caused by falling oil prices. "The money is still good" for China.

Diaa Sherzad, a student at the language school, has just passed an oral exam.

According to the 21-year old, he thinks about his next steps all the time. "The most important thing to me is how I can help my people. It will help if I can speak Chinese. The future is all about everything."

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