On alternate mornings, in a sparsely furnished classroom at a private school in the Laotian capital, Liphakone Ratthida and a dozen of his classmates converse in Chinese and study’s history and culture.
Though he goes by the Chinese name Li Panda, Mr. Ratthida is not of Chinese ancestry, nor has he been to China.
His experience of China is limited to Chinese period dramas on Laotian television and stories from cousins who have studied there. “What I know about China is that it has many luxurious buildings,” he said. “And in China, the universities are better, and the jobs pay better.”
Like many other young Laotians taking Chinese classes, Mr. Ratthida, 19, is learning the language in the hope of working for Chinese companies, which are investing heavily in, an underdeveloped country of 6.5 million people. The recent influx of Chinese companies has brought jobs and the promise of higher salaries.
“In future, there will be a lot of Chinese companies coming to Laos,” said Mr. Ratthida, who is studying international economics and trade at Soochow University in Laos, which is mainland China’s first university campus abroad. “It is easier to find work at a Chinese company if I can speak the language.”
Many Chinese schools have sprung up in towns along the Laos-China border, while Chinese schools in Vientiane are gaining popularity and Laotian schools are starting to offer Chinese classes. Laotian government officials are among the parents choosing to put their children in such schools.
“We have many government officials who send their kids to our school,” said Lin Junxiong, director and principal of the Lieu Tou Chinese School, which opened in 1937 and is Vientiane’s oldest Chinese school. “It is a common sight to see police cars waiting outside the school gate. These parents want their children to study Chinese because the Chinese economy is booming and it is an advantage if they know the language.”
Lieu Tou has seen a spike in enrollment over the past few years. It now has about 2,400 students from kindergarten through high school, a 10 percent increase from a year ago.
“In the past, we have 30 students in a class — now we have 40 to 50 students per class,” Mr. Lin said. “Many good students cannot enroll into this school because we have limited classrooms and teachers.”
The school has 160 teachers, 29 of them from China on two-year stints paid for by the Chinese government. Students learn Lao and Chinese from kindergarten, with English introduced in primary school. Although 10 percent of the students are of Chinese ancestry — Laos has an ethnic Chinese population estimated at 1 to 2 percent — most speak no Chinese when they start, Mr. Lin said.
Xaynousone Oudomsap, an 18-year-old high school student at Lieu Tou, has been learning Chinese for 13 years and has two younger sisters in the same school.
“At first, it was difficult learning Chinese because of the complex characters and the different tones,” she said. “Nowadays, there are more international companies in Laos, and it would be easier to find a job if you know more than one language.”
China’s economic influence can be felt throughout Laos, a landlocked country. Chinese companies are building factories and constructing dams on the Mekong River and will soon begin an ambitious high-speed rail project to link Vientiane with Kunming, the capital of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.
Special economic zones have also emerged along the border to encourage Chinese businesses to invest. Near Wattay International Airport, hundreds of Chinese vendors ply their wares at the San Jiang International Market, which is owned by Chinese and known as the Chinese Market.
“It is like stepping into China,” said Nina Phanouvong, an 18-year-old student at Lieu Tou. “They sell everything Chinese, such as food, clothes and furniture. They even have fake iPhones.”
Soochow University, which opened its Vientiane branch last year, is also trying to find a market for its degrees in Laos at a time when top Western universities are looking to enter China. Another mainland Chinese university, Xiamen University, is planning a campus in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“Only by going out can we close in on the top Chinese universities, and we think Laos is a suitable location to begin,” said Wang Jiexian, vice president of Soochow’s Vientiane campus.
Soochow is the first foreign university to receive approval from the Laotian government to provide degree programs. The campus offers courses in Laotian law, Chinese literature, economics and trade, as well as Chinese.
“By the time they graduate, all our students will be able to speak Chinese,” Mr. Wang said. “They can speak at least two languages, understand the cultures of the two countries and work well in a Chinese company here.”
The campus now operates from temporary premises in suburban Vientiane, pending development of a 57-acre permanent site on former village land on the fringes of the city. The permanent campus has been designed to house 5,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, but its completion date is uncertain because of a land dispute.
This year, Soochow has 50 students enrolled in undergraduate programs and 100 registered in evening classes. Undergraduates will spend a year attending classes in Laos before continuing three years of their education on the main campus, which is in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou and has a student population of over 41,000.
The fees are not low by local standards. A year at the Laotian campus costs as much as $1,500, five times the $300 average at local universities. Fees at the Suzhou campus can cost $2,500 a year, though once the new campus is built, students will be able to complete their entire degree program in Laos.
The university originally planned for the campus to be built in three years, with a $7 million first phase — a cafeteria, a dormitory and a building for classrooms and offices — completed by the end of last year. But for now, all that stands on the site are houses occupied by three village families who have resisted eviction orders.
“We’ve yet to begin construction because the villagers do not want to move,” Mr. Wang said. “When we try to start, they stop us.”
The Laotian government has put together a team to settle the dispute, he said, but “it is now impossible to complete construction in two to three years. We may have to wait.”