It Pays To Learn Chinese, In Cambodia

A mini boom in Chinese-language studies has hit Cambodia, which not only trades with mainland China but also counts many ethnic Chinese among its business leaders.

Students at Duan Hoa Chinese-language School in Phnom Penh
Students at Duan Hoa Chinese-language School in Phnom Penh
Chen Lixiong

PHNOM PENH — Speaking over the sounds of a noisy classroom, Tep Raska uses his not-very-standard Mandarin to tel me why he came to this particular school. “I’ d like to do business in trading glass,” says Raska.

Though an ethnic Khmer, his parents sent him to study at the Toun Fa Chinese School, a private Chinese-language school based in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Toun Fa has been attracting more and more local Khmer students, alongside the still dominant ethnic Chinese pupils. Of its 16,000 students, aged from five to 17, some 5% are now Khmers, up from 2-3% a decade ago.

Already the biggest Chinese-language school in Southeast Asia, Toun Fa is still expanding. A new branch was opened in 1995, and additional buildings have been added, including one three months ago thanks to the donations of its alumni and the Chinese embassy in Cambodia.

China’s increasing economic strength and importance are the reasons why Chinese schools have been growing in Cambodia, explains Li Minghui, Tuan Fa’s President. “It’s easier to find work and, in particular, high-end work in areas such as engineering and banking if one masters Chinese," says Li.

Many of Cambodia’s leading investors are from the Chinese diaspora, whether they are from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Malaysia. "And they all speak Chinese,” says Li.

The Cambodian government has begun promoting Chinese learning. According to various estimates, though it makes up less than 5% of Cambodia’s population of some 15 million, the Chinese-speaking community is very influential both economically and politically in the country.

On the bandwagon

China is Cambodia’s leading source of investment, accounting for some 20% of the $40 billion of investment projects ratified by the Cambodian government between 1994 and 2011. Meanwhile mainland China is also one of the country’s most important trading partners. Since 2000, China’s exports to Cambodia have increased 15-fold. The Chinese government has also been providing large amounts of foreign aid to its southeastern neighbor, including a governmental complex called the “Friendship Building” completed in 2010.

In foreign affairs as well, Cambodia is also following the Chinese lead, in accordance with the Asian power's growing clout. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' summit held in Phnom Penh in 2012, for the first time in ASEAN’s history, it failed to release a joint communiqué. Most observers noted that as the South China Sea issue was escalating at the time, the host Cambodian government was thought to not want to add the words “deeply concerned” over the situation so as not to offend Beijing.

International relations experts in Phnom Penh are optimistic about the future of China-Cambodia relations. Even if the emerging opposition party takes office one day, the Chinese economy will remain decisive for the country, and it will also need to use China’s weight to contain its neighbor Vietnam.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly stated that China is Cambodia’s “most trusted friend.”

The expansion of the Toun Fa Chinese School is thus a reflection of Cambodia’s broader political and economic direction. Established by Chinese emigrants from Chiu Chow in 1915, the school just celebrated its 100th anniversary.

There was a period in the last century when Toun Fa was regarded as the country’s top elite institution. However, the 1970 military coup led by Lon Nol led to the complete closure of all Chinese language schools. This policy continued during the following period of Cambodia’s civil war. “We despaired,” school head Li recalled of the period when most Chinese people were forced to move into the rural areas.

It was not until 22 years later that Cambodia ended its long period of war and instability, and eventually some 80 Chinese schools were resurrected. Due to economic difficulties there are currently only around 50 schools left.

Some note that the long disruption of Chinese education has dragged down the language skills of ethnic Chinese. But now, for pragmatic new reasons, things are changing again, says Li: “I am pleased to be able to say that Chinese language teaching is back to stay.”

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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