Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen chairs the Second Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leader's Meeting on January 10. Photo: VCG
Vendors navigate the Mekong river in Vietnam. Photo: VCG
When Zhang Weiguo learned that he was admitted as a Myanmese major at Yunnan Minzu University in 2009, he was deeply worried that he might not find a job after graduation.
Zhang, from Southwest China's Yunnan Province, was offered a national scholarship to study in Myanmar for roughly a year in 2012. The experience changed him.
"At first I didn't feel much about my major and thought it was just a minor language used by a small population. During my year in Myanmar, I made quite a lot of friends, and got to know the country and its people better," Zhang said.
Even more surprising to him were the multiple job offers he received from a government department, a State-owned bank and a university when he graduated in 2013. After some thought, he chose to become one of the first Myanmese teachers at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.
Almost all of Zhang's 28 classmates were able to find jobs related to their major.
Zhang said thanks to the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) project, demand for Southeast Asian languages has surged in recent years.
According to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Second LMC Leaders' Meeting held in Cambodia last week, China is now the largest trading partner of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and the second-largest trading partner of Laos.
"Building mutual trust and understanding is the key to LMC, which requires more people who know not only the other country's language, but their national conditions, culture and way of thinking as well," said Zhao Shulan, a research fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
Zhao said systematic language training is indispensable and the most efficient way to achieve this goal.
In 2017, the trade volume between China and the five LMC countries reached $220 billion, up 16 percent from 2016. China's total investment in the five countries has exceeded $42 billion, with a growth rate of more than 20 percent in 2017.
More people are running businesses and building careers in other countries in the region.
Yunnan, which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, has established an intercollegiate committee to promote the teaching and learning of Southeast Asian languages in the province. A dozen language majors have since been set up, covering as many as 15 different languages used throughout Southeast Asia.
"Studying the Thai language has brought me opportunities to explore the country's politics, economics and culture, and a promising career as well," said Chen Xiaoyun, a faculty member in the Thai studies program at Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
To further cultural and educational exchanges between China and Southeast Asia, Premier Li said China will offer short-term training and in-service education for 2,000 people in Lancang-Mekong countries and 100 four-year scholarships for undergraduates in 2018.
Zhang has applied for a master's degree in Southeast Asian studies at the university where he teaches Myanmese, the same program his students are enrolled in.
"I will get my master's degree this year together with my students, and I would like to continue doctoral studies in the area," Zhang said.