Features | Society | East Asia

The Risks of China’s Students

Many U.S. universities have been falling over themselves to accept Chinese students. But are they ignoring the dangers of cultural tensions in search of money?

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.

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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.

The roots of this skepticism in China towards study-abroad graduates go back to the late 1990s, when Chinese undergraduates began studying abroad in British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand colleges. Western public-funded universities, facing declining enrollment, eagerly sought tuition-paying Chinese students, many of whom had flunked out of Chinese schools. Most came from wealthy and powerful families and had little motivation and incentive to study, a problem that persists among their successors in America today. A lucrative business sprung up around study abroad, so lucrative indeed that it overrode all educational concerns – primarily the ability of Western universities to absorb and educate properly unmotivated Chinese students with limited English. A few Western universities became little more than diploma mills. The result was that many Chinese with Western degrees returned to China with limited English and even more limited job prospects. From society’s point of view, they were at best a bad joke, and at worst an economic burden, unskilled workers with high salary expectations.

U.S. colleges, because of their expensive tuition and America’s tight visa restrictions, remained a distant dream to many Chinese undergraduates up until 2004. With the Chinese economy soaring, the U.S. government relaxed visa restrictions, and American colleges and universities began recruiting in China. Today, with China’s economy still purring and the United States’ only starting to show some signs of a re-emergence from its economic turmoil, Chinese students promise to be a feature on many American colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, their search for a better future comes at a time when Americans are worried about their own. One of America’s favorite pastimes is debating education: Are America’s best colleges and universities biased towards the rich? Is the U.S. K-12 system failing to educate its students? Why can’t the United States produce the scientists necessary for a 21st century knowledge economy? And these questions have become concrete and immediate with China’s economic rise. That’s why Americans reacted with such visceral fear when they discovered that Shanghai 15-year-olds topped the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD)’s global Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, and with such visceral loathing to Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal column “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” This fear and loathing is in some cases now being directed at Chinese students studying in the United States, a phenomenon that crystallizes for Americans their worst fears that the U.S. political, financial, and intellectual elite are selling them out. It’s a mood that isn’t helped by the perception, and, at times, the reality that many Chinese students are academically ill-prepared and culturally arrogant.  

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No Historical Parallel

The scale of the current influx into American universities has no historical parallel, but there are precedents for Chinese students studying in the United States. Two hundred years ago, China was still the middle kingdom, the center of the universe, and the Great Wall was the boundary that separated civilization from barbarity. The two Opium Wars humbled the Chinese emperor, and the Boxer Rebellion was the Qing dynasty’s last great go at resisting the West. With the indemnity from the Boxer Rebellion, Western governments provided scholarships for Chinese youth to study in the West, and so began the first major influx of Chinese studying in American universities. While the empire was no more, Chinese culture and civilization were still central to the Chinese consciousness, and Chinese families sent their children abroad for the specific purpose of learning from the West to help develop the motherland.

The triumph of the Communist Party over the Kuomintang in 1949 shut down this cultural bridge. It was only 30 years later when Deng Xiaoping announced his Open Door policy that Chinese scholars and students were allowed once again to study in the United States. In the early 1980s, China’s most well-connected and brightest graduate students went abroad with the explicit purpose of escaping the chaos, instability, and poverty of the new China to seek a new life in America. They saw themselves essentially as immigrants, keeping their heads low while doing the most menial labor (at least in America they worked in labs rather than on farms). Over the next couple of decades, their ambitions expanded, and they attended U.S. graduate schools in the hope of eventually returning home and striking it rich in the new China. Many returned to become Internet entrepreneurs and venture capitalists: Charles Zhang, a Tsinghua University graduate who received his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning to China to start Sohu.com, became the poster-boy of his generation.

But starting in the late 1990s, with China’s coastal regions developing into modern metropolises and with students being born with no memory of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, the ambitions and attitudes of Chinese students shifted yet again. The booming economy meant Chinese families could afford to send their child abroad, and so began China’s third wave of study abroad. These students lack the cultural loyalty and patriotism of China’s first wave (the Qing dynasty and republican government scholarship students), and the academic merit and diligence of the second wave (the Chinese graduate students). Because they’ve bought their way into a Western undergraduate program, many of them think they’ve bought the degree as well. And because there are so many of them, they segregate themselves in their tiny familiar circles. In previous decades, American academics encountered polite and studious Chinese students, and in small doses. Now, some complain that the ignorance and arrogance of Chinese students are even worse than their English and plagiarism. 

For many years, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand chose to ignore these problems because Chinese students were such an important source of revenue for their publicly-funded universities. But now there’s a growing backlash. Back in 1998, it was one of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s proudest foreign policy initiatives to welcome Chinese students into the United Kingdom. Today, the United Kingdom plans to raise language requirements, which would mean that 20,000 of the 85,000 Chinese students studying in the U.K. would be forced to leave, according to China Daily. Now the backlash risks spreading to the United States.

Simmering Tensions

In 2000, a Xi’an native named Zhai Tiantian made his way to study engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Over the next ten years there he would obtain an undergraduate degree and two masters’ degrees. He was working on his doctorate in engineering when the university suspended him for stalking a woman. Zhai fought the ruling, and one night he called and threatened to burn down the school.Police charged Zhai for making “terroristic threats,” and deported him to China.

The Chinese media, public, and Internet rallied behind Zhai, and the case became what The New York Times dubbed “a minor international incident.” The quasi-official Chinese newspaper Global Times, in a May 27, 2010 editorial, accused the United States of discrimination and hypocrisy: “The incident lays bare the deep-seated disrespect for Chinese people by the U.S. government, which has long boasted its respect for freedom and human rights…Had the incident taken place in China, some U.S. media outlets would have used it to cast blame on China’s human rights record.”

Then there was the 2009 incident involving two Chinese freshmen at the University of Oregon. After they had rented a townhouse near the campus, one of their new neighbors reported them to the police. The police called the landlord, who had forgotten that he had leased the townhouse to the Chinese students; two patrolmen were sent to investigate. The two Chinese freshmen, who couldn’t speak English, understood the patrolmen’s questions as much as they understood why their privacy had been invaded. Then one of the police officers reportedly tasered one of the students, and arrested both. 

As more Chinese study in the United States without adequate language, cultural, and psychological preparation, these incidents will likely increase. Every society that’s involved in globalization will see cross-cultural conflicts, and often these conflicts will be more indicative of individual problems (such as the case with Zhai Tiantian) than of larger social trends. But with China seen to be on the rise and America on the decline, Chinese students in the U.S. find themselves in the crossfire of this complicated geo-political relationship. Zhai Tiantian would probably not have found himself in The New York Times and in “a minor international incident” if he had been German.

We can see this backlash in the reader responses to media reports about Chinese students. In a December 8, 2009 USA Today article “Chinese college students flocking to U.S. campuses,” Mary Beth Marklein writes how Chinese undergraduates at the University of Nebraska have “zoomed from 19 to 171, making Chinese the largest foreign student group on campus this fall for the first time.” 

Dozens of readers responded to Marklein’s article, most negatively. Their comments reveal a palpable paranoia among many Americans that, after losing their livelihoods to the Chinese, they are about to lose their country (a fear that appears to being somewhat stoked ahead of the U.S. presidential election this autumn). Readers wrote that Chinese students were stealing scarce higher education spots from American students: “More foreign students accepted into U.S. colleges mean less of our youth get to go to college,” wrote one reader. “The competition is already tough for our kids with some schools turning away 50-80% of applicants. Why would our government allow this to happen? Is foreign relations more important than the success of our own children?” With America in the economic doldrums and the wealth gap expanding, there’s a sense among Americans that they’ve been betrayed by the rich, powerful, and educated, but it’s China – that amorphous yellow menace – that drums up their worst fears and anger.  

Adding fuel to the fire is how Chinese choose to behave or not behave on American campuses. As director of Peking University High School’s International Division, I know that many Chinese study-abroad students are talented and hard-working young people who just want to make the most of their opportunity to study in some of the world’s finest colleges. But I also can’t ignore the stories I’ve heard from colleagues and former students about how Chinese students behave on American campuses. I’ve heard complaints that Chinese students segregate themselves, and only speak Mandarin. They breeze through the math and science courses, but reading and writing in English frustrate them. Plagiarism and disciplinary violations are rife.

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Americans, historically accustomed to the stereotypically polite and diligent Chinese student, become overwhelmed when confronted with this new crop. “As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, still living in Madison, I can attest to the fact that a majority of students from Asia are ill-prepared to adjust to living in this country,” wrote “Distressed Midwesterner” in response to a February 11, 2011 New York Times article entitled “Recruiting in China Pays Off for U.S. Colleges.” “They look on Americans with contempt, do not understand they are guests, and leave a ‘holier-than-thou’ impression on everyone who is not from their country.”

Cultural Divides

Americans are entitledto be indignant when they encounter Chinese students who are arrogant and ignorant. But other criticisms are less justified. Take tuition fees: Most Chinese students pay the full international student rate, and are in effect subsidizing the education of their American classmates. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, international students can expect to pay almost three times what their American peers do. American students also have access to government loans and scholarships to defray costs, whereas many Chinese families have had to spend their life savings to pay for their child’s U.S. education.

Meanwhile, the bad economy means that, while it’s hard for American graduates to find work in America, it’s nearly impossible for international graduates. In response to the critical comments to The New York Times article “Recruiting in China Pays Off for U.S. Colleges,” a Chinese undergraduate in America named Cynthia wrote, “I don’t really understand why after American schools taking away so many dollars from us but not willing to give us a fair opportunity for jobs!…I really love this country but feel hopeless staying here. No credit, no family, no citizenship, no benefit, and maybe not job in future.” Given such feelings, it’s possible that some of the perceived arrogance of Chinese students may just be resentment at a perception of being treated unfairly.

Moreover, it’s unfair to single out Chinese students for not mixing in when most students, American or international, have problems adjusting to academic and social life on the American campus. All students segregate themselves in their own ways. Chinese and other international students huddle together. So do Chinese-Americans, African-Americans, and other minorities. And so do jocks, musicians, and nerds. Every cultural and ethnic group on the U.S. campus has issues with arrogance, drinking, and plagiarism. Many Chinese students may be unable to do college-level assignments but, according to the education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” many Americans who enter college can’t do them either.  

So why single out Chinese students? In part it’s a result of the East-West cultural divide – a gap so vast, and with values and priorities in such conflict, that many second or third-generation Asian-Americans themselves have yet to cross over. But it also arises from the reality that right now Americans blame China for just about everything. In American eyes, China has stolen American jobs, sold Americans toxic unsafe goods, engaged in unfair trade by keeping the yuan artificially low, and now owns America. Now it’s denying American children a chance at a better life in their own land.

All this is mostly nonsense, but it’s nonsense with a precedent. Historically, societies have found it easier, more convenient, and most satisfying to scapegoat rather than to appreciate the nuances and complexities of a situation, and to take responsibility for major societal failings, such as dysfunctional schools. This is more than just about short-term irrational fears provoked by China’s rise. Ultimately, it’s about the shortcomings and limitations of globalization, and what it means to be human. 

The Lexus and the Olive Tree

In his globalization manifesto The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman uses the metaphors of individual progress (the Lexus) and communal happiness (the olive tree) to describe the conflict and contradiction inherent in globalization. The problem with globalization, Friedman writes, is that while it benefits all, it doesn’t benefit all equally. Those with the wealth, ability, and education to thrive in the global economy will choose the Lexus, while everyone else, threatened by change and progress, will cling stubbornly onto the olive tree. While it’s possible that the majority may just decide to overturn the Lexus, Friedman optimistically believes that the world’s poor realize they have much to gain with globalization than without:

"[T]here is a groundswell of people demanding the benefits of globalization. This groundswell is propelled by millions of people who have been knocked around by globalization, but who nonetheless get up, dust themselves off and knock again on globalization’s door, demanding to get into the system. Because if they have half a chance, the turtles don’t want to be turtles, the left-behinds don’t want to remain behind and the know-nots want to know something more. They want to be lions or gazelles. They want to get a piece of the system, not to destroy it."

The Lexus and the Olive Treewas published in 1999, a time of endless optimism in America. The Berlin War had collapsed, and history seemed to have ended in America’s favor.

But then 9/11 happened, the dotcom bubble burst, Enron went bankrupt, and the subprime crisis engulfed America in its current economic malaise. The 9/11 tragedy forced Americans to re-examine the Middle East, and globalization in general.

One such re-examination is Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Wright begins his book with the story of a middle-aged writer and Egyptian educator named Sayyid Qutb who in November 1948 made his way to America to study. His experience in the United States, rather than mold a U.S. ally, would create an implacable foe who became al-Qaeda’s ideological forefather:

"Certainly the [American] trip had not accomplished what Qutb’s friends in Egypt had hoped. Instead of becoming liberalized by his experience in America, he returned even more radicalized. Moreover, his sour impressions, when published, would profoundly shape Arab and Muslim perceptions of the new world at a time when their esteem for America and its values had been high.

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He also brought home a new and abiding anger about race. “The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy,” he declared. 'The white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilization, his universal principles and noble objectives…We are endowing our children with amazement and respect for the master who tramples our honor and enslaves us. Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children. Let us teach these children from the time their nails are soft that the white man is the enemy of humanity, and that they should destroy him at the first opportunity.'"

Sayyid Qutb incited hatred and contempt against Americans because he himself was wracked with self-hatred and self-contempt, especially in his relations with women and with his own society. It wasn’t his encounter with American racism, inequality, or colonialism but rather with diversity, sexual progress, and modernity that turned his insecurities, anxieties, and doubts toxic, and made him seek comfort and shelter in the violent dogma of Islamic fundamentalism.  

And in this Qutb is far from alone. At the other end of the socio-economic, political, and intellectual spectrum from Sayyid Qutb ought to be the bin Laden family, who rose to power and prominence as the House of Saud’s contractors. In his book The Bin Ladens, Steve Coll charts the family’s rise and expansion into the United States, where they became integrated into American society:

"Until Osama announced himself as an international terrorist, his family was much more heavily invested in the United States than has generally been understood – his brothers and sisters owned American shopping centers, apartment complexes, condominiums, luxury estates, privatized prisons in Massachusetts, corporate stocks, an airport, and much else. They attended American universities, maintained friendships and business partnerships with Americans, and sought American passports for their children. They financed Hollywood movies, traded Thoroughbred horses with country singer Kenny Rogers, and negotiated real estate deals with Donald Trump. They regarded George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Prince Charles as friends of their family."

But this didn’t mean all bin Laden family members adjusted to life in America. The simple truths and eternal values they had internalized growing up rich and powerful in Saudi Arabia no longer applied to their new life in America. Family members were preyed upon and swindled out of their money. The law reached even into the sanctity of homes, and the police once questioned bin Laden family members about their treatment of the household help. And when one bin Laden son found himself in American divorce court, he yearned for the ease and simplicity of patriarchal Muslim law. While rich and comfortable in America, many bin Laden sons in the end chose the comfort and certainty of their corrupt and close-minded homeland. And after 9/11 the rest of the family had no choice but to head home to Saudi Arabia, where according to Steve Coll they are more successful than ever.   

Psychologists know that people above all seek happiness by building a social network, seeking those who most think and act like themselves. In a time of globalization, the Internet, and the free market, when communities, traditions, and knowledge are constantly being overturned and reinvented, even people as rich and as powerful as the bin Laden family are scared, and cling onto their existing communities, traditions, and knowledge. This might be called “racism” or “prejudice” or “ignorance,” but what is more human than the search for friends, meaning, and understanding in a time of chaos, conflict, and contradictions?

Chinese students on the American campus are more than about the future of U.S.-China relations or another globalization battleground. They are children far away from home, lost and scared and vulnerable, trying desperately to make sense of their new surroundings. For Americans who see a group of Chinese jabbering away in Mandarin in the dining hall or dominating math class, the university experience becomes even more disorienting. For Chinese who become deaf and dumb in a new strange land because they can understand the freewheeling individualistic culture as little as American humor, the experience can be traumatic.

It’s a strange irony that, despite our own failures to bridge the East-West divide, we somehow expect our children to understand, tolerate, and respect each other. And we ask them to do so at a time in their lives when, like Sayyid Qutb, they’re struggling with personal issues or are feeling far from home, vulnerable and adrift. If our children fail to bring out better U.S.-China relations, it’s because we first failed them.

Looking for a Way Forward

The sheer number of Chinese students in the United States, the inability of many U.S. colleges and universities to monitor and absorb them, and the economic frustrations of Americans are a toxic combination that risks leading to a violent backlash against all Chinese students studying in America. Perhaps a drunk Chinese student will run over an elderly American woman with his Lexus, or perhaps a campus bar fight will break out between American and Chinese students. Whatever the unfortunate incident, it will galvanize and direct American fears and frustrations, leading to an over-reaction. The Chinese and U.S. media will focus on and magnify the over-reaction, leading to a U.S.-China diplomatic crisis. In the aftershock, the mood on American campuses could be transformed from quiet condescension to outright racism. Even the Chinese students portrayed in Dan Levin’s glowing portrait will start seeing hostile stares. And in these dark times, China’s Sayyid Qutb will find his intellectual birth and growth.

None of this need be, if the Chinese and American governments become proactive and decisive. There’s too much profit for American colleges and universities to just say no, but the American government need not rubber-stamp Chinese student visas. American embassy officials ought to encourage qualified and deserving Chinese students to study in the United States, and no one else.

The stakes are much higher for China, and so China needs to do more. To its credit, the Chinese government acknowledges the economic risks and social consequences of sending so many ill-prepared students abroad. In November 2010, a week after the Institute for International Education released its Open Doors report, Chinese education officials ordered China’s elite high schools to establish international divisions to better prepare Chinese students for study abroad. But, ultimately, China needs to offer a more relevant education to keep its best and brightest at home, and a more humane education to help everyone else. 

In the long term, we need to seriously re-formulate study abroad to ensure it benefits both China and the United States. As things stand, study abroad is hurting both Chinese and American schools. As long as China’s richest and brightest can opt out, China’s education system may lack the incentive, pressure, and resources to reform. For China, study abroad represents both a brain drain as well as a capital flight of billions of dollars, money that could be invested in Chinese schools.

But Chinese study abroad also makes it difficult to reform American education. The revenue stream incentivizes U.S. college administrators to focus on recruiting Chinese students rather than asking the important question: Are we preparing all our students, Chinese and American, for the global workplace? And low-performing Chinese students may well force American colleges to lower graduation requirements in order to keep the revenue stream running.

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The free market works when consumers can pick the choice that best suits their needs and desires. Unfortunately, because of inefficiencies and weaknesses in both the U.S. and Chinese education systems, Chinese students and American institutions of higher education have found themselves uncomfortable and strange bedfellows.