Is Overseas Study Helping US-China Relations?
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Is Overseas Study Helping US-China Relations?

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Both the number and growth of Chinese students at American universities is one of the more startling phenomena in higher education. A welcome one, too: study abroad would seem to promise a future where U.S.-China relations might be characterized by greater firsthand knowledge of American culture among the Chinese. By generating greater understanding, their experience in the U.S. should also expand their sense of common interests, brightening prospects for cooperation between the world’s main powers. While few would object to such a future as a goal of foreign policy, how realistic is it?

Unsentimental Education

Let’s start with the numbers: the Institute of International Education reports there were more than 235,000 Chinese students in the U.S. during the 2012/2013 academic year, a 21 percent increase from the year prior, making China the number one source of foreign students in America for four years running. Nearly half of these students are studying either business or engineering; adding math and the hard sciences would account for over two-thirds. These are ultimately more applied subjects that tend to be less popular among other international students, let alone among Americans: in 2011/2012, for instance, only 16 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees were conferred in these fields.

Of course, it isn’t just academic majors that determine the character of study abroad, but even so, there are few indications Chinese students’ experiences are especially representative, independent of what their coursework looks like. That means less class participation, less involvement in extracurricular activities, and fewer friendships with Americans, even compared with other foreign students, despite the fact most American consider all these things inseparable elements of university life. And if Chinese students’ time abroad isn’t reflective of that broader U.S. experience, then one should ask to what extent their studies are really maximizing their understanding of America.

Given that Chinese numbers have surged only recently, it might be unrealistic to expect this kind of integration so quickly. Plus, these challenges can face students no matter where they originally come from, especially places where university culture may differ dramatically. But the stakes involved in helping China’s youth obtain a more representative view of the U.S. are frankly higher, and both the number of international students (not to mention the tuition they often pay in full) can actually make it harder for universities to take their acculturation seriously. The more Chinese choose to study in America, the more tempting it becomes to measure success by the revenue they bring than educational quality, even as these students find it easier to spend their days with compatriots.

Mandarin Is the (Distant) Future (Maybe)

At the same time, educational exchange is a two-way street. While more and more Chinese arrive on U.S. campuses, there is no comparable trend in the other direction, making one question just how well America’s next generation will know the Chinese. In 2011/2012, fewer than 15,000 Americans were hitting the books in China, a mere two percent increase from the previous year, and only half the number studying abroad in Italy. And among this already small group, only 2,200 of them are actually pursuing a degree in China, a number that encompasses programs taught in English. Even high-profile initiatives like the Schwarzman Scholars program – a kind of Rhodes Scholarship to attend Tsinghua University – will have all its courses taught in English, despite the program’s founder saying, “In the 21st century, China is no longer an elective course.” Yet here is a course that currently has few requirements.

In fairness, there simply aren’t enough Americans who can pursue degree programs in Mandarin. Nor is it clear, despite the vogue for accepting Mandarin’s status as the next Japanese, that young Americans’ engagement with China will change radically. The Modern Language Association, in its most recent survey of course enrollments, showed that even though Americans’ interest in Chinese has grown, there are still more students in the U.S. learning, yes, Japanese, and thousands more who study Italian, German, French, and of course Spanish. And all of these languages, Japanese excepted, take far less work to master. Campaigns like the Obama administration’s 100,000 Strong initiative, designed to send more Americans to China for Mandarin study, have sought to correct this imbalance, but starting from such a low level, it will take years to assess their impact.

Sea Turtles Adrift

At least one could argue that most Americans who do go to China are driven primarily to know the country with increased sophistication, supplementing but not replacing a U.S. education. To the extent those studies have professional value, it rests less in technical training than in signaling internationalism and some familiarity with Mandarin. While many students from China travel to the U.S. for enrichment as well, their reasons (and their curriculum) tend to be more explicitly pre-professional, particularly given the costs their families bear. Chinese students can derive important insights into American life by going abroad, but we shouldn’t assume they prioritize this in the way Americans do when heading to China.

If Chinese youth are less integrated culturally as students, can one at least assume their time in America provides a useful credential? This isn’t always clear either, as there are signs Chinese graduates who return from the U.S. aren’t profiting like they used to. Some wonder whether this is because China has changed so quickly: now, absence from the country means returning graduates – so-called “sea turtles,” or haigui – no longer understand local working conditions the way they need to. Wei Sun, for instance, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that Chinese returnees who entered the venture capital industry were less effective than Chinese who hadn’t left at all, perhaps because so much of one’s success depends on building up personal networks.

The outlook for Chinese returnees is important, since, all else being equal, the promise of educational exchange is fulfilled when students apply what they’ve learned back home. They contribute to bilateral understanding in a way emigrants cannot. But while haigui may face increased competition from Chinese who never left, the broader truth is China’s labor market appears to be grim for graduates of all kinds, and doesn’t necessarily reward risk-taking or specialized skills, precisely those areas we would expect haigui to excel in. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on a survey by economist Gan Li, who concluded Chinese college grads between the ages of 21 and 25 had an unemployment rate four times higher than elementary school dropouts, suggesting China isn’t creating enough skilled jobs. Another study found Chinese graduates with top grades didn’t earn as much as those with mediocre ones, perhaps because the less accomplished had better personal connections.

As the WSJ also noted, a Tsinghua poll in 2010 showed nearly a third of Chinese college students preferred to work for state-owned enterprises; another third wanted to work for government; and only 11 percent wanted to start their own business. It’s difficult to blame them: on the World Bank’s Doing Business survey, the United States ranks 20th when it comes to ease of starting a business, with Hong Kong and Taiwan performing even better (5th and 17th place respectively); mainland China ranks 158th. In this light, it’s unsurprising last year saw a record 1.52 million Chinese students registering to take the civil service exam, likely to hedge against risks that grads now face. (It should be noted, though, that the number has dropped significantly this year.)

As a result, the phenomenon of sea turtles is not as notable as one might hope if Sino-American understanding were to hinge on students eventually returning home. Between 1996 and 2011, only a third of students going abroad chose to go back to China. And at the highest levels of education, the numbers are still more extreme: economist Michael Finn concluded that, of PRC students in the U.S. who received a science or engineering doctorate in 2002, 92 percent of them were still in America five years later. By contrast, only 43 percent of their Taiwanese peers stayed in the U.S., and 41 percent of South Koreans. While there can be different reasons behind these career decisions, the numbers suggest that, even if American universities are preparing China’s next generation to make its mark on the world, it’s not necessarily from within China. Factors beyond education, be it meritocratic hiring, regulatory burdens, or even environmental concerns, may still prevent aspiring sea turtles from taking their insights on U.S. life, not to mention their technical know-how, back to China.

With greater Sino-American cooperation a priority, it makes sense to entrust success to those with the energy and years to see it through: young people. But the familiarity the U.S. and China have developed with other regions, in some cases over centuries, has yet to materialize. That will require students to draw ever deeper cultural lessons abroad, and then return home to a country that wants such lessons to inform its behavior. While America and China have taken initial steps toward this end, a journey of a thousand miles is still a journey of a thousand miles.

Anthony Chang is Executive Director of the U.S.-China Education Trust (www.uscet.org) in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.

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