The Risks of China’s Students
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The Risks of China’s Students

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This is the third in our special series of essays on the Asia-Pacific's future.

Over the past 150 years, several waves of Chinese students have arrived in the United States. But the current wave, which has brought some 128,000 Chinese students to U.S. colleges and universities, is creating problems and opportunities unlike anything that has happened previously.

In a world increasingly defined by U.S-China rivalry, this influx of Chinese students presents an alluring image: future business, cultural, and political leaders of both countries studying side-by-side and learning to understand each other. The reality is less romantic: This is a movement driven not by an agenda for global understanding, but – mainly – by free market economics. Large numbers of American colleges and universities are simply trying to cash in on the Chinese vogue for overseas study; in turn, many Chinese students – often self-financed and ill-prepared – are seeking American academic credentials primarily to advance their careers, with little interest in learning more about the West.

Critics in both the United States and China who know about education have voiced concerns that the education of the Chinese in the U.S. has become just a business – albeit a big business where money is the overriding motivation – not about education and academic excellence. The public in both countries is also disquieted: Ordinary Americans have begun to fear hordes of Chinese students grabbing college places from their children; ordinary Chinese express growing suspicion that the rich are simply buying American degrees.

The flood of Chinese students into American schools is a free market success story, efficiently bringing together producers and consumers in the global marketplace. But it’s also a story that shows how the free market, by ignoring long-term public and social interests, sometimes doesn’t work very well. It illustrates the limits of globalization, and demonstrates that when two cultures meet, they often collide, leading not to understanding, co-operation, and respect, but to confusion, conflict, and contempt. And it sets a challenge, for both the Chinese and American governments, to fix the flaws in what could be a positive educational movement before any more damage is done.

The China Boom

Chinese undergraduates in America had their coming-out party on November 5, 2010 when The New York Times published an article by Beijing-based freelance writer Dan Levin, “The China Education Boom on U.S. Campuses.” This described Chinese undergraduates rushing head-long to embrace the vibrancy and diversity of American life, and used the example of Ding Yinghan, a “bespectacled whiz kid,” to paint an idyllic picture of the Chinese presence on the American campus:

"Now a junior, [Ding Yinghan] is on full scholarship, no. 1 in his class [at Hamilton College] and spending this year at Dartmouth on a dual-degree engineering program. He also founded the bridge club at Hamilton, ran the Ping-Pong team, wrote for the student newspaper and tutored in chemistry, physics and economics for $8.50 an hour.

"His first tutoring job was freshman year, when his advanced calculus professor asked him to help classmates struggling with the material. Over textbooks and calculators, Mr. Ding used the opportunity to practice his English and find commonalities with people who had never met someone from China."

Ten days after this article appeared, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual Open Doors report, which showed that the number of Chinese enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education in 2009-10 increased 30 percent from 98,235 to 127,628. IIE’s President Allan E. Goodman summarizes the prevailing attitude among American educators when he said, “Active engagement between U.S. and international students in American classrooms provides students with valuable skills that will enable them to collaborate across cultures and borders to address shared global challenges in the years ahead.”

That’s not a view that’s widely shared in China, where many believe study abroad translates into the wealthy and powerful buying Western degrees for their lazy and spoilt children. Like many stereotypes, there’s some truth in it, but it’s by no means the full story. Among the Chinese students heading to the United States are some of the country’s top test-takers, who know that America’s best colleges and universities are the best in the world. Unfortunately for China, their departure is depriving its universities of what should be some of its finest students.

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