Chinese still choosing to study in US despite hostilities – but growth of the trend slows sharply

Mark Magnier

Sun Hang, a 19-year-old first-year student from eastern China’s Zhejiang province, decided to study in the United States at George Washington University despite his concern about growing US-China tension and the US government’s increasingly restrictive visa policy.

“It will allow me to have a good resume, get a good job in China and enjoy myself,” said Sun, a history major dressed in a long black coat against the cold. “US education is much better” than that in Australia or England, partly because of its better reputation, he added. t

The allure of a US education for many Chinese appears, at first glance, to be holding firm. Despite the US-China trade war, growing mutual distrust and a ramped-up counter-espionage campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), last year brought a modest increase in the number of Chinese students studying in the US.

According to the “2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange” – based on a survey of more than 2,800 US schools that was released on Monday by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the State Department – the number of Chinese students rose 1.7 per cent in the 2017-18 academic year over the previous year.

This amounted to 369,548 Chinese, according to the survey, making Chinese the largest group of foreign students in the US for the tenth consecutive year.

China was followed by India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada as the nationality of America’s 1.1 million foreign students, representing a 0.5 per cent increase over the year before. International students contributed US$44.7 billion to the US economy in 2018, according to Commerce Department data, a 5.5 per cent increase.

Most foreign students studied science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, perhaps not surprisingly given that English language skills are not as crucial in those areas.

While engineering remained the most popular field of study, however, maths and computer science supplanted business and management as the second most popular major.

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But a closer look suggests that the flow of Chinese students is ebbing and not immune to politics or economics. The rate of increase has been on an uninterrupted decline since the 2009-10 academic year, when numbers grew by nearly 30 per cent. And a closer look suggests there are fewer students in the pipeline.

Also worrying is that the number of Americans studying in China is waning, potentially eroding two-way communication.

The rate of newly arriving Chinese undergraduates was essentially flat and the number of non-degree students declined by 5.4 per cent during the 2018-19 academic year, according to IIE data, while the number of Chinese graduate students grew by 2 per cent.

The largest increase, at 6.6 per cent, was among STEM students permitted to work after graduation, a programme known as optional practical training. In 2016, the Barack Obama administration expanded the programme, allowing foreign STEM students to work for 24 months, up from 17 months – a change the Donald Trump administration has kept in place.

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Some 87 per cent of school-based college counsellors in China said that Chinese students and their parents were having second thoughts about their plans to study in the US, in a recent survey by Amherst College. Last year, the Trump administration considered banning visas for Chinese nationals to study at US universities because of fear of spying, according to the Financial Times.

Signals from some government bodies, including the FBI and Congress, are hardly welcoming.

FBI director Christopher Wray, for example, accused Beijing of increasing its use of “non-traditional collectors” – such as professors, scientists and students – for its intelligence gathering.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us,” Wray testified at a Senate hearing in February last year.

Christopher Wray, FBI director (centre), speaks while David Glawe, under secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security (left), and Russell Travers, acting director at the National Counterterrorism Centre, listen during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing. Photo: Bloomberg

And as US government espionage indictments against Chinese entities have mounted, Wray hardened his stance further this year. Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, on April 26, the FBI chief criticised what he called attempts by the Chinese government to “steal its way up the economic ladder” at the United States’ expense – “stealing innovation in any way it can, from a wide array of businesses, universities and organisations”.

Meanwhile, the Protect Our Universities Act, introduced this year in the Senate and the House of Representatives, would establish a task force, led by the US department of education, to maintain a list of “sensitive” research projects, including those financed by the defence and energy departments as well as US intelligence agencies.

The proposed body would monitor foreign student participation in those projects. Students with past or current Chinese citizenship would not be allowed access to the projects without a waiver from the director of national intelligence if the legislation passes.

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Joseph Fewsmith, international relations professor at Boston University and author of numerous books on China, said several forces seemed to be at work in the downward trend, in addition to the Trump administration’s hardline rhetoric towards China. These included tighter currency controls enacted by Beijing, an inevitable levelling of growth and the growing attraction of top-tier Chinese institutions, such as Peking and Tsinghua universities, for Chinese students.

“A number of my students complain that it’s very difficult to transfer money out of China now, and Boston is an expensive school,” Fewsmith said. “But if you can’t get into top-tier universities in China, such as Beida or Tsinghua, than the US becomes very attractive. You’re not going to do well with a third-tier school.”

Sun put the cost of US universities, which can be upwards of US$60,000 a year, more succinctly: “It’s crazy,” he said.

IIE and state officials have played down questions about the impact of Trump’s anti-immigration policies and tough rhetoric, and his administration’s focus on rooting out spies among Chinese scholars and scientists.

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The institute, which administers the Fulbright Programme and an extensive global scholarship programme, gets much of its budget from US and foreign governments.

“The state department has been working hard to make sure that Chinese students know they’re welcome,” Caroline Casagrande, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Academic Programmes, said at a press conference introducing the report, citing a promotional video and a US-written editorial in China Youth Daily. “President Trump said about a month ago from the Oval Office [that] we have incredible talent coming in from China.”

Brandon Zhong, 18, a native of Hangzhou who is studying at George Washington University, said he had not experienced any direct prejudice since arriving, adding that he had chosen to study in the US because it was the only country more powerful than China.

The international relations student said he hoped the two countries could bury the hatchet. “I think there’s a peaceful way for the US and China,” Zhong said. “But some of my Chinese friends are very concerned. They see more trouble ahead.”

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Zhong said he liked being able to choose courses freely at a US university, compared with the Chinese system, where most classes are prescribed. “And class discussion here is much better than in China, where it’s mostly lectures with teachers doing the main talking,” he said, adding that he would like to remain in the US after graduating to work if he can extend his visa.

The IIE said the number of American students studying in China had been declining for several years. Starting in the 2012-13 academic year, the number has fallen steadily by up to 8.6 per cent annually, with the exception of the 2016-17 year when it increased slightly. Last year it fell 2.5 per cent.

Most Americans studying abroad headed to nations with relatively similar Western cultures, led by Britain, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. The only Asian destination with significant growth last year was Japan, the tenth most popular foreign destination for American students, which recorded a 12.4 per cent increase.

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The IIE said several factors may be at play, including decisions by US universities to relocate their study-abroad programmes to Japan from China and continued news coverage of air pollution and related health issues that deter American parents and students.

“In addition, the tightening of [Communist] Party control over universities in China may have discouraged some US partners from establishing or expanding exchange programmes there,” Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsellor to the IIE’s president, said.

Fewsmith said that was short-sighted, given the importance of having Americans who understand China and its rising importance on the world stage, the growing risk of misunderstandings and the many misperceptions on both sides of the Pacific.

“You need a whole bunch of people in the coming years who are familiar with Chinese language, Chinese society, who feel comfortable living there – it’s absolutely essential for the future of this country,” he said, although he acknowledged inconveniences related to studying in China. “If you can’t be on Facebook or Instagram, living in China is not so comfortable.”

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