Daisy Liang started to apply for postgraduate programmes at American universities five weeks ago.
As the United States eased quarantine measures for Chinese students last month , Liang, who works for a foreign company in Beijing, decided it was time to pursue her dream of studying in the US.
“It’s part of my career plan – graduate from university, work for a couple of years and then go to the US to do a master’s degree,” Liang, 26, said. “It’s a set path for many of my friends. It won’t change easily.”
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China is the largest source of international students for the US, with 470,000 active students in the country in 2019, according to official US data. However, the number fell by nearly 92,000 last year, as many returned home and the US missions suspended routine visa services because of the pandemic.
The US embassy and consulates in China started accepting student visa applications again in May. And since August 1, Chinese students have no longer had to spend two weeks quarantined in a third place before entering the US.
They must only present a negative test result 72 hours before departure, have another Covid-19 test three to five days after arrival and undergo seven days of home quarantine. In addition, most universities require students to be fully vaccinated.
The US will also reopen in November to air travellers from 33 countries including China who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, easing tough pandemic-related restrictions that started early last year.
Those who have received vaccines listed for emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO) will be considered fully vaccinated, according to a spokesman for the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Two Chinese vaccines are on the WHO list but the US CDC has not issued guidelines for implementing the new policy yet.
Foreign nationals will need to present proof of vaccination before travel and will not be required to quarantine upon arrival under the policy.
Liang is worried about Covid-19 as the Delta variant continues to spread. She is also “a little bit upset” about racism as tensions between China and the US rise on fronts ranging from trade to technology and ideology. However, she is not deterred.
“There’s risk in everything. If I don’t do this, the loss will be huge,” she said. “International vision, critical thinking and free expression of opinion … Beyond these merits, widely accessible scholarship makes the US more attractive.”
There are also benefits in returning home after study abroad. In response to Beijing’s call to build China into a technology power, local governments across the nation are wooing returnees, offering attractive salaries, housing benefits and research funding in return for their expertise.
Amy Zhao, a senior consultant with an education agency in Beijing, said applications to study on American campuses recovered quickly this year to pre-coronavirus levels thanks to the relaxation of pandemic control measures in the US.
“We mainly handle applications for literature and business majors. The demand is as robust as the pre-pandemic era. The US has so many famous universities, which have a big allure for Chinese students,” Zhao said.
She also said many top graduates were looking to do further study because job prospects in China were not promising.
A record 9.09 million students graduated from Chinese universities and colleagues this year. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 rose to 16.2 per cent in July, from 15.4 per cent in June – the highest reading since China started releasing data regularly for this age group in February. The rate improved to 15.3 per cent in August, but still reflecting a gloomy employment picture.
US-bound students formed long queues at check-in counters at Shanghai Pudong International Airport last month, snapping up expensive airline tickets in a scramble to start the autumn semester, the Shanghai-based China Business News reported.
The eased measures and travel convenience were likely to result in a greater flow of Chinese students to the US in the short term, said Miao Lu, secretary general of the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG), a Beijing think tank.
“In the long run, the number is unlikely to hit new records, because restrictions [by the US] in majors amid the technological decoupling are expected to dampen the interest,” Miao said. “Many students will have to choose to study in other countries instead.”
Victor Gao, a third year student majoring in electronics at a university in Beijing, said he had given up plans to study in the US after former president Donald Trump issued Proclamation 10043.
The proclamation banned Chinese postgraduate students and researchers from studying or working in the US if Washington deemed them to be affiliated with China’s “military-civil fusion strategy”.
Among the list allegedly with military links are Beihang University, Beijing Institute of Technology, and Harbin Institute of Technology.
Gao’s university is not on the list, but he is still worried. “I guess it will be increasingly difficult for Chinese majoring in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] to study in the US, as technology rivalry between the two countries is expected to worsen,” Gao said.
“I plan to study in Britain or Canada instead, where visa policies may be friendlier.”
In September last year, the US Department of Homeland Security said it had revoked visas for more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers it said had ties to the Chinese military, accusing some of espionage.
In July, a spokesman for the US embassy in Beijing said the visa restrictions related to less than 2 per cent of the overall number of Chinese students and exchange visitor visa applicants. Washington still welcomed Chinese students who did not further China’s efforts to modernise its military, he said.
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