Chinese studying in US become ‘political cannon fodder’ as visa process tightens amid feud

Shen Lu
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Chinese studying in US become ‘political cannon fodder’ as visa process tightens amid feud

Albert Pi, in his second year of a PhD programme in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, endured an 85-day wait for his US visa while visiting family in Beijing over the winter break.

A trip meant to last only two weeks nearly turned into a permanent homecoming.

When he applied to the US embassy for his visa renewal, he never expected a wait that would nearly force him to give up on his programme.

“My biggest fear is I won’t be able to return to the US if my visa continues to be checked, to a point when MIT has to terminate my programme,” Pi, 24, said in March.

It was bad enough that he had to drop one class and wasn’t able to attend the American Physical Society’s annual meeting as he had planned.

The reason for the delay: “administrative processing”, a designation for visa applications undergoing additional vetting for security reasons.

Several students in science and technology interviewed by the South China Morning Post said their visa wait time ran from eight to 10 weeks.

Before US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, they said they heard from friends that administrative processing was not as common, and the wait time typically ran from three to six weeks.

Most administrative processing is resolved within 60 days of the visa interview, according to the State Department.

A 2018 survey by the Institute of International Education, a non-profit research group based in New York, showed that nearly half of the 540 higher education institutions that responded in the US reported declines in new Chinese student enrolment.

Reasons cited were visa delays and denials and the current social and political climate. Almost 80 per cent expressed growing concerns about recruiting students from China.

The number of Chinese students on US college and university campuses has grown rapidly since the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Doors slam shut on Chinese students amid US espionage fears

The latest data, however, shows a modest drop: 369,364 mainland Chinese students held student visas in March 2019, down 7,706, or 2 per cent, from the previous March.

One in every three international students in the US comes from mainland China, the most from any country.

All told, Chinese students contribute nearly US$13 billion annually to the US economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about a two-hour drive south of Chicago, hosts the largest number of Chinese students in the US: 5,725.

Li Yulin, president of the Chinese student association there, said that at least 100 people at several universities – especially doctoral students – were experiencing prolonged visa checks and remained stranded in China.

He became aware of the issue when two University of Illinois students approached him for help; they told him those stuck in limbo in China had formed a chat group on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, to support one another.

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The situation prompted Chinese student associations at several other institutions – including Cornell University and University of California, Berkeley – to start a petition seeking timely visa renewals from the US Department of State.

In the past year, Trump administration officials – including FBI director Christopher Wray, senior White House figures and even the president himself – have portrayed Chinese studying in the US as threats to national security.

Citing espionage concerns, the State Department last June shortened the length of visas for Chinese graduate students in fields such as aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing – areas related to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” programme – to one year from the previous five.

American colleges and universities traditionally attract foreign students, many from China, to perform scientific research and technological innovation.

From 2005 to 2015, nearly 90 per cent of Chinese doctoral students planned to remain in the US, a National Science Foundation study found.

“I feel I’m being wronged,” Pi said. “I am not a spy.”

Visa delays are just one factor leading many mainland Chinese students to question the wisdom of a US education in this political climate.

Another red flag is more stringent scrutiny of applications for H-1B visas, which allow international students to work in the US after graduation.

US to shorten length of some Chinese visas amid trade row

The latest data from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) show that 25 per cent of H-1B petitions were denied in the three months ending December 31, 2018.

The denial rate has risen steadily since fiscal 2016, the last full year of former president Barack Obama’s administration, when it stood at 6 per cent.

And the portion of H-1B petitions subject to government requests for more information (RFE) rose from 21 per cent to 60 per cent.

After reviewing RFE responses, the USCIS denied nearly 39 per cent of the applications, compared with 21 per cent in fiscal 2016.

The expectations of safety and positive experiences are becoming more important than the prestige of studying in the US

Rahul Choudaha, who works with international students

“The downturn that we’re seeing in Chinese enrolments is primarily at the application stage,” said Randall Deike, a senior vice-president in charge of enrolment at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“They’re just looking to other countries where there isn't as much controversy, where there isn't as much anxiety about how open the country actually is to having international students in general – but Chinese students in particular.”

H-1B policies affect all foreign nationals, but the escalating US-China trade war – and regular announcements by the FBI and US Justice Department about intellectual property theft by Chinese nationals and entities tied to Beijing – creates a “perception problem” that is starting to dampen Chinese interest in a US education, Deike said.

Regarding perceptions, he said: “It’s about the rhetoric. It’s about a trade war. It’s about a level of uncertainty and anxiety over what really is a current relationship with China. And, more important, what will it be in the future.”

Chinese students caught in trade war crossfire urge US to ease visa curbs

Deike declined to provide specific enrolment data on Chinese students at Drexel. Other American universities with large mainland Chinese student populations, many in the Midwest, are experiencing similar declines.

The University of Illinois has reportedly bought insurance against a major decline in tuition revenue from Chinese students. It saw a dip of 120 in Chinese enrolment in 2018, down 2 per cent from a year earlier.

Purdue University and Indiana University each reported a 10 per cent drop in Chinese enrolments last year.

After soaring growth in Chinese enrolment over the past decade, the current decrease may be a correction, experts say.

Still, the way Washington frames threats from China and the additional visa restrictions are likely making the US less attractive for mainland students, especially undergraduates.

“In the current climate of political tensions, the expectations of safety and positive experiences are becoming more important than the prestige of studying in the US,” said Rahul Choudaha, executive vice-president at Studyportals, an online platform for international students, and a research associate at the Centre of Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley.

“In the short term, the perceptions of safety are gaining more prominence among undergraduate students and their families – which, in turn, are making them consider alternative destinations with welcoming immigration policies and cordial political ties,” Choudaha said.

Indeed, this trend is already emerging.

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A new study, conducted by a subsidiary of China’s largest private education service provider, showed that 43 per cent of 6,228 people surveyed listed the US as their top educational destination – seven percentage points lower than in 2017.

Britain, the second most popular country among Chinese students aspiring to study abroad, was the top choice of 41 per cent, up from 34 per cent in 2017.

The Trump administration’s increasingly stringent standards for H-1B visas may also deter Chinese students.

“Many students are scared away already by the new policies even before going through the visa hurdles,” said Ma Yingyi, a sociologist at Syracuse University and author of the upcoming book Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education.

The new visa policies tripped up Geng Wen, a former marketing specialist in Boston for a Canadian technology publication.

Her H-1B visa petition – sponsored by her employer – was denied in November, four months after she submitted additional information for an RFE review.

The reason? She was told that her job wasn’t the kind of “speciality occupation” that would warrant an H-1B visa.

Geng had no choice but to return to China. The visa review, she said, disrupted her life and career plans.

But the worst part about the ordeal, she said, was the feeling of powerlessness of being an immigrant in Trump’s America.

Her publication was focused on artificial intelligence and has offices in China and Canada. Geng thinks those details might have combined to end her opportunity to work in the US.

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“I just became cannon fodder of politics,” said Geng, speaking from China.

Pi, the electrical engineering and computer science student at MIT, is back at school and continuing his research.

But like other Chinese doctoral students interviewed for this article, he will limit his travel plans outside the US to avoid another long visa review – or worse, a denial – until the US-China relationship warms again.

“If it becomes worse,” he said, “I won’t leave.”

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