Future historians reflecting on the current implosion in U.S.-China relations should include a section on the phenomenon of the large group of young Chinese who have been coming to study in North America since the turn of the century.
These numbers are probably at the top of a near two-decade trend in history’s largest cross-border movement of one group of people to another country for the sole or main purpose of seeking an education. It took place after China accelerated its opening up to the West in the 1990s.
On paper, this should have produced a blockbuster win-win outcome for everyone. The U.S. (together with Canada) and China would have benefited from the increased cultural exchange and people-to-people interactions.
Chinese students would have learned the value of human rights and individual freedoms provided for in a western democracy to contrast their own experience living in a totalitarian regime.
Those who returned home would have brought some of their newly acquired liberal outlook and professional skills to help improve China’s political and economic conditions. A more open China would eventually become a freer and more prosperous possibly democratic nation state.
For the U.S., China would become a new major source of supply of students who also injected hard cash into many of its increasingly underfunded universities and their surrounding hard-pressed economies.
Upon graduation, the students would represent a new network of help for the U.S. to boost the exports of its products and services to the world’s most populous nation. Politically, the students and their new North American friends would have the role of peacemaker and informal ambassadors to smooth over the occasional rough patches in their countries’ bilateral relationship.
For the large part, the students have succeeded. Many excelled in North America’s institutions of learning. Some stayed on after graduation while others returned home, with most retaining enormous goodwill and fond memories of their time in the West.
Friendships and relationships were formed. All seemed to have worked out despite the occasional burst of bilateral tensions.
In short, this generation of North America-educated Chinese students and their friends in the U.S. and Canada were to have been a building block for strong cross-Pacific ties.
That thesis is now being incinerated as enormous cracks in the U.S.-China ties have burst open in the most dramatic manner. The bilateral foundation clearly was never that strong as resentment and suspicion had been building between the two sides for some time.
Last October, the Financial Times reported that U.S. president Donald Trump considered banning entry visas for Chinese students to stop them attending American universities. Senior Trump Administration officials openly speak of these students as spies sent by Beijing to steal American technology and undermine U.S. security.
All the rosy expectations about fostering people-to-people ties have evaporated in an instant.
The goodwill built from decades of U.S. universities and schools educating Chinese student has proved insufficient to stop the deterioration in bilateral ties. While the reported ban has not happened yet, the possibility now exists.
America’s sharply changed perception towards Chinese students began nearly two years ago when FBI director Christopher Wray described China as a “whole-of-society threat” with its alleged large group of “collectors” infiltrating American society, including institutions of learning, to gather intelligence and steal technology.
“I would just say that the use of non-traditional collectors—especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students—we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country,” Wray said.
His accusation is the culimination of years of American complaints against China that the Trump presidency has been able to crystallize through its aggregation of many of the country’s top trade and economic hawks in its cabinet.
On campus, there have been growing complaints by local students and teachers about the Chinese in their midst. Here’s a list, whether justified or not:
- Chinese students displace locals in the competition for limited space in the classroom;
- There’s been a perceived decline in academic standards to accommodate students with poor English skills;
- Chinese students tend to stick among themselves, and are unable or unwilling to integrate and participate in campus activities;
- Some of the students are in the U.S. and Canada only to fulfill their parents’ wishes that they obtain a degree from an international university;
- The students add to America’s growing wealth divide as many recent arrivals choose to live in luxury homes and drive expensive cars with no interest in interacting with local regular people;
- The students are part of a bigger plan by middle-class and wealthy Chinese to migrate to North America to protect their wealth from the Chinese government;
- The students are not committed to western liberal values as their focus is on improving their business and professional skills to earn a living.
The Chinese students have their own list of grievances:
- The universities view them as cash machines to help fund their budget deficits and keep professors employed;
- Many are from less-than-wealthy backgrounds, but are treated with disdain by locals who think they are all rich;
- The universities do not provide enough support to help their adjustments to life in the U.S. and Canada, leaving many to suffer loneliness, alienation, and depression;
- American and Canadian students have no interest in forming friendships, putting the responsibility to “integrate” solely on the Chinese who must struggle to overcome their language and cultural handicaps;
- North American society generally is ignorant and lacking in curiosity about China, placing an additional and unreasonable burden on the newly arrived young Chinese to deal with prejudices and presumptions in their interactions.
- North Americans believe they have little to learn from the Chinese, given their belief in the vast superiority of western culture over others. As such, cross-cultural “communication” tends to be one way, with the onus placed squarely on Chinese to learn about North American culture, history, and language.
Originally cast as a foundation stone for building cross-Pacific ties, Chinese students in North America are now at risk of being seen as potential fifth columnists at worst, and as knowledge parasites at best.
The alumni have not proved sufficiently influential to slow down, much less check, the deterioration in China’s ties with both the U.S. and Canada.
As the two countries mull steps to curb the entry of Chinese students into their universities, there have been few standout voices from among the large group of past beneficiaries to argue the case for the West to continue educating China’s young.
Have educated Chinese become a force for making the world a better place? How have they contributed to relations between China and the West? Have they tried to make China more open and liberal? Why should the West continue to train Chinese scientists and engineers who will end up serving Beijing’s totalitarian regime?
These are harsh one-sided questions, probably even unfair given the circumstances of the past decades. Yet increasingly, the responsibility lies with the Chinese themselves to argue their case.
If they cannot, or will not, it will affirm the suspicion that many are in North America mostly to improve their material well-being and nothing else.
Why should the West continue to train such a group of seemingly self-centred people unable or uninterested to defend the liberal order that has contributed to their and China’s rise over the past four decades?
Future historians will have to examine the moral case for the West to help educate China’s young, and whether this was a moment of missed opportunities in the shaping of the Chinese character.More