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Why Can’t China Attract Students From Developed Countries Anymore?

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Why Can’t China Attract Students From Developed Countries Anymore?

A recent set of proposals seeks to address an alarming decline.

Why Can’t China Attract Students From Developed Countries Anymore?
Credit: Photo 46427211 | China University © Photomall |

At the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference held this month, two proposals made by Professor Jia Qingguo of Peking University attracted considerable attention. One focused on making China more appealing to foreign students, while the other sought to encourage the public to effectively convey the Chinese story to the rest of the world. Much of the attention focused on the first of these proposals.

The suggestion that China be made more appealing to foreign students is not, of course, at odds with any of the policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Nonetheless, Jia did point out that policies associated with the “Study in China” brand that Xi Jinping has been promoting – namely to convey to a wider audience the Chinese experience, make China’s voice heard, expand the international influence of Chinese education, and seize discursive power – have not really produced results. The number of international students studying in China, especially from the United States, has apparently fallen from a peak of 15,000 a decade ago to about 350 in 2023. Even the number of South Korean students has dropped by 78 percent since 2017.

What is behind these declines? Jia observed that COVID-19 could not be the cause since international student numbers are already returning to pre-COVID levels in other countries. He also ruled out international politics as a factor, given that the number of Chinese students going to developed countries is gradually recovering.

Rather, Jia cited three other possible culprits. First, perception issues. In short, there is the perception that studying in China is not very meaningful for foreign students. In severe cases, it is seen as not only difficult but also dangerous to receive funding from the Chinese Ministry of Education to study abroad. The second reason is that foreign companies have scaled back their operations in China because of the worsening Chinese economy, which means fewer internships or similar opportunities for foreign students to find employment. Third, Jia pointed to academic research. Since there is an element of “political correctness” involved, which is a profound point of difference between China and other countries, there is growing uncertainty about the anonymous reviews of papers written by foreign students.

There are two additional causes for concern. First, the Chinese government has not clarified how it applies a series of laws with extraterritorial applications. As an example, no detailed implementation guidelines have been issued for the Anti-Espionage Law, leaving it unclear what is illegal. This has led to misunderstandings. Finally, Jia cited issues with living convenience.

With this in mind, Jia made nine suggestions. Some are quite groundbreaking, such as ensuring that other countries properly understand China’s policy intentions. First, with regard to the anonymous reviews of papers written by foreign students, it might be possible to handle these separately from those submitted by Chinese students, which are subject to a political judgment made based on adherence to the Chinese constitution and laws. This is not a matter of treating Chinese and foreign students differently in academic terms, but rather addresses the political issue.

Jia also called for the government to promptly issue detailed guidelines for the application of relevant laws, including the Anti-Espionage Law, to clarify the principles, reduce ambiguities, and protect and encourage lawful and regulated academic research. The relevant government departments should regularly publish data and information on foreign students studying in China, strengthen research, and, on this basis, come up with more rational policies.

Even if these proposals were to be adopted, it is unclear whether students from developed countries would actually start choosing to study in China again. Still, Jia’s proposals at least address some of the concerns. Proposals and questions put to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference are supposed to be answered by the relevant departments. How will they respond to the issues Jia has raised?

A very large number of Chinese students and scholars have been coming to Japan. Yet the number going in the opposite direction has not recovered. While China’s own firewalls constrain inbound movement, the outflow of people and money from China to foreign countries is accelerating. Although this might have been what China itself wanted, could the government have predicted the consequences? If it thought that people and money would be attracted to China despite its suppression, the reality has proved it wrong.