“We have nothing to fear from Western education!”
Ever since Deng Xiaoping’s proclamation to Henry Kissinger at a Beijing banquet in 1979, over 4.5 million Chinese students have flocked to the United States and other Western countries in order to bridge the “20 year skills gap in science, technology and education” that Deng had bemoaned.
Today over 600,000 Chinese students enroll in Western universities each year, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education, over half of whom study in the United States. For many years this human exchange has been a win-win situation for all concerned: the Chinese government sees the skills of its workforce increase, students are allowed access to knowledge and opportunities unavailable in China, and Western universities receive a valuable revenue stream.
But a number of political forces appear to be aligning against the study abroad trend. Beijing’s relations with many of its Western partners are becoming increasingly fraught just as anti-immigrant rhetoric sweeps the developed world. China also seeks to create world-class education of its own, potentially stemming the need to export students. With this in mind, it’s worth asking the question: Is the golden age of Chinese students at Western institutions coming to an end?
The Trade War’s Collateral Damage
Until recently the United States held an unassailable advantage in the collective imagination of prospective Chinese students. The prestige of U.S. institutions ranks considerably higher than that of anywhere else, and enrollment numbers of Chinese students have grown at an extraordinary rate, from 67,000 in 2007 to 351,000 in 2017.
But with relations between the United States and China deteriorating rapidly, and a trade war in full swing, students have found themselves on the frontline.
The tone was set this February as Christopher Wray, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that it was not only the Chinese government, but the whole of Chinese society represented a threat to the United States. “They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have,” he added, noting that there was a “level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector” in regard to this.
One could hardly accuse U.S. President Donald Trump of such “naïveté.” In August Politico reported the president’s view that “almost every student that comes here from [China] is a spy.” Meanwhile senior White House staffers such as Peter Navarro and Stephen Miller are pushing for a near-total ban on student visas for Chinese nationals.
The U.S. government is not only concerned that its own universities are equipping China with the education required to threaten U.S. technological supremacy, but that China has been stealing U.S. intellectual property (IP) in order to accelerate this process. The most recent high profile IP theft case was that of former IBM employee Xu Jiaqiang, a Chinese citizen, who was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2018 for stealing data storage technology from the tech giant.
Many U.S. visa agencies have recently received instructions to reconsider granting visas to Chinese students applying to certain STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), as well as limiting the length of their stay.
This was music to the ears of Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who tweeted, “Imposing limits on some Chinese visas may seem harsh, but it’s necessary. #China poses unprecedented threat. Student & academic visas are another weapon they use against us in their campaign to steal & cheat their way to world dominance.”
But is this blatant politicization of Chinese students likely to impact the number of enrollments on U.S. campuses? Jack Marr, a professor of business and economics at Boise University, thinks not.
“Most of these decisions to study in the U.S. are made at the micro, or individual level. The large majority of the 360,000 plus student visas that go to Mainland Chinese are not in STEM-sensitive graduate level fields,” Marr explains.
“Naturally, if the Chinese government wishes to retaliate by stemming the flow of exit visas, this could be another story but that does not seem to be in anyone’s best interest.”
Sally Wang, an alumnus of New York University now living in Beijing, agrees, “About 17 percent of international students are from China in 2017. What’s the benefit for America to ban Chinese students from going there when they pay such high tuition?”
But others consider that this could be an overly optimistic view. These small changes may affect only a few students in reality, but when making an extremely expensive application, perception is key.
“Chinese students do not like taking risks,” says Emma Lu, from Guangzhou. “The issue is that the U.S. is perceived as unsafe. Chinese people are very safety conscious.”
This has only blown up following Trump’s rhetoric. Leona Xi, a recent graduate in Beijing, states that she had considered a master’s degree in the U.S. but has now been put off the idea. “I get a little bit nervous because of Trump; I just don’t know what he’s going to do next.”
Mexico’s former ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, also falls into the pessimistic camp. “Mark my words,” he stated, “this will come back and bite the US in the ass. These students, who are talented innovators contributing to US technology, will go elsewhere or stay in China. The US will be worse off for it. [It’s the] beginning of the end of US tech supremacy.”
Australia and China “Resetting” Relations
Where else then, might Chinese students turn? Australia has long been a popular choice due to the relative ease with which foreign students can find jobs in the country upon graduation. Australia also lies in a similar time zone, which helps students feel more connected with their parents, and home.
“In the Chinese imagination, Australia is in some respects the gateway to the Western world,” says Merriden Varrall of the Lowy Institute, an Australian foreign policy think tank.
But Australia also appears to be getting jittery about China’s geopolitical ambitions, evidenced most recently by Canberra’s refusal to sanction Huawei and ZTE’s investment in the Australia’s 5G infrastructure.
“There’s been a big upsurge in concern over last 18 months about Chinese influence in Australia,” Varrall continues.
One lightening rod for this burgeoning sense of paranoia was the rejection for publication of Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion, a book that discusses the creeping sway of Beijing in Australian life. According to Hamilton, the publisher, Allen and Unwin, originally refused to publish, citing “worries about retaliation from Beijing.”
“No better publicity was needed considering the subject matter,” Varrell quips. “It went on to be a best seller … but it also contributed to this sense of hyperbole about the nature of the threat, rather than developing a clear reaction to the problem.”
The resultant “China Panic” in Australia led to some tough rhetoric from Canberra. “This really, really annoyed the Chinese,” Varrall says. “Their reaction has been to cool the attitude within China towards Australia through the media.” Numerous articles appeared in the state run Global Times, suggesting that perhaps Australia wasn’t the best place to study after all.
Whether this will affect applications to Australian universities is as yet uncertain. “There are two elements to this,” Varrall explains, airing concerns that are held by every university dean in both the United States and Australia: “Will students stop going to Australia of their own volition, and/or will the Chinese government do something to stop them going? Beijing has the option of pulling that lever and preventing Chinese students studying abroad, but would be a huge move. They’d have to be weighing up their broader relationship with Australia, and to an extent the Western world.”
Nevertheless, it seems to be a threat that the Australian higher education sector takes seriously enough to have heavily lobbied the government into a reappraisal of its relationship with Beijing. It’s hard to say how much the university sector contributed to the “China Reset,” which was announced with much aplomb 10 days before the collapse of Australia’s government in August, but relations do appear to have warmed recently.
This is good news for the 166,000 Chinese students studying in Australia, but it remains to be seen how much damage the spat between the countries has caused, as well as whether it will resurface.
The U.K. Turning Inward?
Another huge draw for Chinese students is the United Kingdom. Students are attracted by its culture, relative safety, and long history, especially of universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Of all the cities in the world, London is the number one market for Chinese students.
Chinese students particularly value U.K. master’s degrees – indeed, 58 percent of Chinese students in the U.K. are pursuing a master’s. The advantage of a master’s course is that it confers the maximum amount of credibility and prestige with the smallest time investment. Most U.K. master’s courses, unlike their European and U.S. equivalents, are only one year long.
Unlike with Australia and the United States, geography has dictated that Britain and China have little reason to regard each other with hostility and one would think that this would be a perfect opportunity for British universities to pursue increased enrollments from China.
However, the U.K. is hamstrung by its immigration policy. Whereas foreign students in Australia are encouraged to find jobs in the country, the U.K. expects students to leave the country once their student visas expire.
The political concerns over immigration were reflected in the vote to leave the European Union in 2016. This decision now presents what, to some, is an existential threat to the prestige of British universities. No one quite knows how British higher education will be able to maintain its academic standards should EU professors and students be unable to continue working or studying in the country.
In the short term, this will be to the benefit of Chinese students, as universities look to milk one of the few reliable sources of student supply. There are currently around 200,000 Chinese students in the U.K., a number that has been steadily rising year on year, both as a raw number and a percentage of the total international students. In the year ending March 2018, the U.K. issued around 89,000 Tier 4 study visas to Chinese students, representing year-on-year growth of 15 percent.
In what appears to be recognition of the worst case “Brexit” scenario, the Home Office recently announced a visa policy that significantly streamlines the process for Chinese students. They will no longer be required to provide evidence of finances, qualifications, or English language ability with their visa application.
But this is a short-term fix. Should Britain’s departure from the EU be badly handled, with foreign professors and students turned away, will the resultant drop in academic standards see the U.K. continue to be a place where Chinese students actually want to study?
Education With Chinese Characteristics
This is an especially pertinent question as China’s own universities shoot up the international league tables. A recent report by found that China has now overtaken the United States to become the world’s largest producer of scientific research papers, making up almost a fifth of the total global output. Beijing-based Peking and Tsinghua Universities have also flown up the world university rankings, now occupying 27th and 28th places, respectively.
However, at the same time, the Communist Party has moved to quell freedom of expression within universities. In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying:
To run our higher education well, we must adhere to the leadership of the Party, firmly grasp the leadership of the Party over the work of colleges and universities, and enable colleges and universities to become a strong front to adhere to the leadership of the Party.
This will limit improvements in the subjects, such as the humanities or business, that require a large amount of critical thought. “The idea is that Chinese universities, as places packed with impressionable young people, shouldn’t be hotbeds of anything but diligent learning … there’s certainly not going to be the kind of increase in educational quality that we in the West might understand,” concludes Merriden Varrall.
Importantly, this is a phenomenon that many Chinese have begun to notice too. Tsinghua University scholar Xu Zhangrun criticized the quelling of free thought within universities in a widely circulated essay earlier this year. As long as Chinese students continue to agree with him, there will always be a demand to receive a Western education.
But how long the Chinese government encourages this is another matter entirely.
Joe Barnes is the founder of Oxford Elite Education, an educational consultancy based in Beijing. He has previously written for the Sunday Times and the Financial Times (London), and is the Asia Editor of Jericho, an international affairs website. He holds a master’s degree in Russian politics from the University of Oxford. He can be found on twitter @joelucbarnes.