Amid tensions, students from China seen as positive presence

For the 2022-23 academic year, China remained the top origin for international students in the U.S. with a total of 289,526, according to the 2023 Open Doors Report released by the Institute of International Education.

Chinese students comprised 27 percent of total international students in the United States, the report by the governmental agency said.

That number was the lowest since the number of Chinese students peaked at more than 369,000 in the U.S. in the 2019-20 academic year, a drop of 21 percent over a period of three years.

The decline was, at least partially, due to the political cloud that has been hanging over Chinese students in the U.S. in the past several years, said Madelyn Ross, president of the U.S.-China Education Trust (USCET), at an online discussion about Chinese students in the U.S. on Tuesday.

“Some prominent American voices have even labeled Chinese students and scholars broadly as a national security threat and questioned whether the risks of educational exchanges outweigh the benefits,” said Ross.

“These suspicions are a stark reversal of the general consensus that has been in place during most of the last four decades, when Chinese international students have been widely viewed as a positive presence in American higher education.”

Ross said the reality is that there is a lot of alienation and a drop in interest among high school and college students in China. “They see the United States as less welcoming. They see gun violence. They see they have more questions, and they have more choices. They can stay in China. Also, a lot of other countries are wooing them,” Ross said.

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Despite the current tension, Ross believes that Chinese students who have studied in the U.S. are a positive force for both countries. She invited four Chinese Americans who came here initially as students to share their experiences at the discussion.

Yawei Liu, senior adviser for China at The Carter Center and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, came to the U.S. in 1987. After obtaining a master’s degree and PhD, he joined the Carter Center in 1998 and became its China Program director in 2005. He has done a great deal in bridging the relationship between the two nations.

Min Fan, executive director of the United States Heartland China Association, initially studied information systems in China, as her parents wished. Fan came to the U.S. and tried her hand at art, business and innovation before she found her true passion doing nonprofit work.

During the pandemic, Fan helped the USHCA launch a few programs to keep China and the U.S. engaged.

“I feel very fortunate after trying different industry fields to kind of find a sweet spot for me, where my interest and passion align with the need I see,” Fan said.

Dawn Li came to the U.S. in her mid-20s, in the 1990s. Witnessing the dawn and development of the internet, she rode the technological wave and co-founded a company providing data and analytical solutions mostly to the U.S. government.

Yi Zheng came to the U.S. in 2009 and now is an associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston. As an accomplished engineer, he published more than 80 journal papers, filed nine patents, and founded clean tech start-up Planck Energies.

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Ross said the four panelists represented the diverse people who have come to America from China since the early 1980s and “the significant contributions they have made to this country over the years”.

Liu said that Chinese students who came and settled down in the U.S. also contributed “to a better, productive and more stable relationship between these two countries”, and consequently, “they are making contributions to a better world, to global peace and prosperity”.

Ross said that some 3 million Chinese students have studied in America over the last 40 years, and many of them play key roles throughout both Chinese and American society.

Chinese students are a bridge helping Americans and Chinese understand each other, Ross said. In addition, “a not insignificant number of them are helping to manage U.S. China relations in governments and boardrooms on both sides of the ocean”, she added.

“In terms of numbers, duration and impact, Chinese and American student exchanges clearly form the bedrock of U.S. China relations.”

The trend of Chinese students in the U.S. has undergone some transformation in the last three decades, according to a new study, Chinese International Students in America 1985-2021, conducted by USCET and the UC San Diego 21st Century China Center.

For example, less than 10 percent of the study sample received financial support from their families prior to 2004, but more than 75 percent of those who graduated after 2015 did.

Increasingly fewer Chinese students chose to stay in the U.S. as time went by, the study found. Some 71 percent of students who graduated between 1991 and 2004 stayed in the U.S. to become American citizens. That percentage dropped to 30 percent for Chinese students who graduated between 2004 and 2015.

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The current downward trend of Chinese students coming to the U.S. might be reversing, according to data released in late November by the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

The embassy said that the U.S. State Department has so far issued more than 94,000 visas to Chinese students, scholars and their family members this year. That number represented an increase of 28,000 over year 2022.


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