A labourer works on completing the campus. Photograph: Vincent Bevins
Yu Heng Yuen, a 20-year-old finance student on the way to the gym on a recent Saturday, said attending XMU was originally his fathers idea.
Its a famous university in China, and we figure there would be some advantage to being in the first international class, he said. He likes the place, and he likes his job prospects. I figure I can look for a job here, or in China, or even better, in Singapore.
Like most of the students, Yu Heng is a Malaysian of ethnic Chinese descent who was educated in the countrys Chinese-language schools. Out of current enrolment of 1,900, there are also 440 students from China.
The students study in English and mostly converse in Chinese languages. For now, Malay the language of around 60% of the population is confined mostly to campus staff working in convenience stories and serving student meals in cavernous dining halls, but officials hope to attract more Malay students as time goes on.
Xiong Bingqi, an education expert from Shanghais Jiaotong University, said Chinese universities had been opening overseas branches albeit far smaller ones for several years.
The first such school – Soochow University in Laos capital Vientiane – opened its doors in 2012, while Shanghais Tongji University cut the ribbon on a small campus in Florence in 2014 offering short-term courses in subjects such as art, design, architecture and fashion.
Earlier this year, one of Chinas top universities, Peking University, announced it had bought a 19th century manor in Oxford and would open a branch of its HSBC Business School there in 2018.
Xiong said the Malaysian project was part of a wider Chinese push for global influence known as Beijings going global strategy.
By opening campuses abroad, these universities hope to enhance their overseas influence and to compete in international higher education. And the government thinks it is good way to export Chinese soft power, said Xiong who is also the vice-president of Chinas 21st Century Education Research Institute.
Xiong said he hoped the presence of Chinese universities overseas might help accelerate the reform of its domestic education system as Chinese schools learned from their foreign competitors. But Xiong said he also feared many such campuses were little more than image projects that might not be financially sustainable or be able to offer high-quality programs.
Theres nothing wrong with [these schools] going global. But we are more interested in their real impact rather than all the hyped-up rhetoric.
For the moment, XMU Malaysia is focused on finishing its construction, boosting the student body to 5,000 by 2020, and making back their sizeable investment. Any profits will be poured back into XMU Malaysia, never repatriated, University president Wang said. Starting at about $5,000 per year, tuition here is less than UK and Australian competitors, but a bit more than Malaysian private universities.
Malaysia was a natural fit for the expansion, Wang said, not only because of active government cooperation, but because Tan Kah Kee, the founder of Xiamen, originally made his fortune in British Malaya, modern-day Malaysia and Singapore. The architectural style named after him, which mixes
Western and traditional Chinese elements, are being faithfully reproduced here.
We think of this as historic, Wang said, speaking of bringing Xiamens educational offerings back to where its founder started. It is indeed important for us to get the investment back, but we would like to take a longer view and give it more time. XMU did not establish XMU Malaysia to make money.
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen in Beijing