Ho Dac Quoc Anh was struggling with his dissertation, talking about young people presented in Vietnamese magazines. He asked a Chinese classmate to help him polish the draft, sentence by sentence, at least to illustrate his arguments in an understandable way.

“I cannot count on one hand how many times I rewrote this chapter about the framing theory,” said Ho Dac. “The Chinese academic language is a disaster for me.”

The 25-year-old Vietnamese would get his master degree in journalism in June. He is one of the over 1,800 Southeast Asian students in 113 Chinese journalism schools.

China’s education ministry reported a 6.5 percent increase in the number of Southeast Asian students last year. Journalism was the second most popular social science major after Chinese language, even though China is widely criticized for lack of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House’s figures.

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Used to be a broadcaster in middle school, Ho Dac has dreamed of being a journalist, He started working in a local magazine in his sophomore year, and decided to have further education in journalism.

“Journalism in Vietnam is subjected to a similar regulation system as in China. I think what I learn here can also apply in my country,” said Ho Dac about his choice to pursuit a master degree in China.

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Journalism students in China follow a Marxist view that includes supporting party principles and maintaining correct “guidance” of public opinion, taught through a syllabus covering the history and theories of foreign and domestic journalism, and separate ideology courses from which foreign students are exempt.

“Journalism is somehow more technical than other subjects,” said Ho Dac. “I care more about the techniques and general codes that help me work as journalist, not the restrictions and value here.”

Many journalism schools in China asks their students to complete a thesis or dissertation as part of their degree requirements, both for bachelor and master.

“I thought I would be requested to do a reporting project to conclude my studies,” said Lam Thien, Cambodian student in senior year. “Writing a thesis cannot reflect my understanding about China and the skills I have learned here.”

Lam shared similar experience with Ho Dac. She had learned Chinese for years before she came to China. Although she got good command of the language, studying journalism and conducting research in Chinese were another story.

Some colleges began to offer English-taught courses in recent years. Communication University (CUC), one of the top Chinese colleges specialized in journalism, created a master program exclusive for international students and saw a steady rise around 20 percent in enrollment from Southeast Asian countries in the past three years.

“We try to offer more possibility as Southeast Asian students are important bridge between China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries,” said Zhou Kui, international program director of CUC.

Chinese government offer special scholarship to students from ASEAN. Besides the free tuition and accommodation, an undergraduate student can receive an additional 2,500 yuan (US$363) subsidy per month.

“To be honest, the scholarship released my burden,” said Nguyen Thi Thuong, Vietnamese PhD candidate with monthly 3,500 yuan (US$510) subsidies. “I did consider Hong Kong or Taiwan for study, but I just could not afford it.”

According to Indonesian news agency Antara, Chinese government expected the number of Southeast Asia students to increase by around a half to at least 100,000 in 2017.

Being a financial journalist in Thailand for two years, Rucky Bongkotsuang applied for a journalism master to Minzu University in Beijing.

“China was once presented very negatively by Thai media four or five years ago. The situation changed as China experienced rapid technological advancement,” she continued. “But I want to see the real China, not only Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.”

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“With China’s growing footprint in Southeast Asia, particularly with the One Belt, One Road initiative, there are more Southeast Asian reporters who want to learn more about the mainland,” said Keith Richburg, director of Journalism and Media Studies Centre of Hong Kong University.

Many Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam have significant Chinese ethnic groups that still maintain Chinese traditions and culture.

Lee Li Vien is a third generation immigrant Chinese-Malaysian. She studied broadcasting journalism at Jinan University, the first and biggest university for oversea Chinese.

“I feel I have connection with China, and the best way to know more about China is to be a reporter here,” she said.

Chinese media, especially those with oversea business, had growing staff from Southeast Asia as translators, editors and foreign correspondents.

“Southeast Asian Chinese well understand the value and mentality of us and our audience, which is critical for efficient cross-culture communication,” said Tian Bing, international division director of the state-owned news agency China News Service (CNS). They had bureaus in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.

At the end of this month, Ho Dac would have to defense his dissertation in front of five scholars and experts, the last task to graduation.

“Actually I am quite sure that I would pass it, but I just get very anxious,” he said, “about the future.” He had sent resume to the Vietnamese service of several media outlets including CNS.

“It is difficult to work as journalists, right? … wherever you are,” he continued.

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