IRBIL, Iraq -- 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.”
The 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 pronunciation.
“Their tongues trembled,” Hu said. After five hours of lessons, five times a week over three years, “They are speaking very well.”
Farhadi wishes it could be the same for the English Language Department; the U.S. and British consulates have seldom offered help, he said.
“They don’t support us at all,” he said.
As China grows its economic footprint, Western oil firms are reducing theirs. Many have expressed discontent with Iraq’s risky investment environment and unfavorable contract terms.
U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil’s exit from 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 major U.S. company in Iraq had long served as a reassurance for other companies.
British Petroleum, operator of Iraq’s largest oil field Rumaila, plans to spin off its business there with another entity jointly owned with China’s CNPC. Other oil companies, including Russia's Lukoil, are demanding amendments to contract terms as a condition to remain.
Chinese companies dominate oil contracts, from operating fields to providing downstream services, and they continue to win more. Recently, Iraq finalized terms with China’s Sinopec to develop Mansuriya gas field, which could produce 300 million standard cubic feet per day if approved by Iraq's next government.
Investing in Iraq is a risk that China is willing to take. With lower profit margins, Chinese firms always offer more attractive, lower-price contracts, industry officials and Iraqi officials said.
Thursday is “Chinese Corner” at the language department.
Chinese businesses -- from oil to wallpapering -- come and meet the students under the pretext of practicing language skills. Most end up with promises for future employment.
“We speak in Chinese and talk about business and the future,” said one student, Hiwar Saadi. “They come to us to meet us and make a connection.”
Two students are already working part-time for a Chinese telecommunications company as translators.
“It’s the opposite in every other department in the university. Supply is high but the demand for jobs is low,” Farhadi said. “Here, the students are turning down job offers in order to focus on study.”
Lessons cover aspects of Chinese culture and history as well. Hu is always quick to remind the students of Beijing and Irbil’s shared golden past: Iraq was part of the ancient Silk Road trade route, linking China’s Han dynasty with the West.
A former Iraqi ambassador to Beijing, Mohammed Saber, said that during his time there, Chinese officials often recalled their shared history. Many Chinese also remembered how in the 1950s, Iraq shipped tons of dates to China to help during famine.
When Sabir began his post in 2004, Iraq-China trade stood at around half a billion dollars. When he left in 2010 it was $10 billion. Last year it reached roughly $30 billion.
“They need our oil, and we need to find a market to sell our oil. The road goes two ways,” he said.
Yao Yan, a Beijing native selling Chinese-made goods in Irbil’s Langa Market, agrees.
A small figure surrounded by mounds of handbags and shoes, she said Iraq offered her better economic prospects. She sends her earnings back home to care for her disabled teenage son.
“Even when there is an economic crisis here,” she said, referring to last year’s liquidity crisis spurred by falling oil prices, “The money is still good for China.”
At the language school, Diaa Sherzad has just completed an oral exam.
The 21-year-old said he is always thinking about what to do next. “The most important thing is how I can serve my people. If I know Chinese, it will help. For the future, for everything.”