‘So many concerns’: Chinese students’ shifting perspectives on pursuing graduate studies in the US

Published 27 November 2020 / By Eric de Roulet

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This article is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum and is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “The future of educational migration


‘Now, what concerns do you have about studying in the US?’

‘So many concerns’, Lily sighed.*

Earlier in our Zoom interview, Lily, a second-year college student from northeastern China, told me that she had been dreaming of studying in the US ‘for years’. But when I asked how likely she was to act on this dream, she replied, ‘about 70%’.

Lily is not alone. Before the pandemic, the US was the number one destination for Chinese international students. Many were lured by the opportunity to attend high-ranking US universities and the personal growth that comes with international experience, while others sought to avoid the brutally competitive entrance exams that Chinese students are required to write to secure a place in graduate school. With the local job market tightening, many young people in China feel that advanced degrees are essential to achieving their career goals, and for many attending school in the United States may have seemed like the best option.

Now, Chinese graduates face different pressures. With the increasing difficulty of travel due to the pandemic and heightened immigration restrictions, as well as the escalating geopolitical competition between the US and China, many international students are re-evaluating their plans to study in the US. I interviewed five students over the summer to get a better sense of how these pressures impacted their decision-making process. Remarkably, while some students, including Lily, reported being worried about the pandemic, it was rarely the main concern of the other students I interviewed. Certainly, these students did not ignore the differences in the pandemic response between the two countries, nor were they unaware of the severity of the outbreak in the USA, but other issues overshadowed the pandemic.

For most interviewees, street violence and personal security seemed like more immediate threats. Unsurprisingly, during the interviews I conducted in August and September, nearly every student mentioned the riots that, regardless of their actual prevalence, were covered extensively on US and international news. ZiTao, a fourth-year from Northeast China, also had the epidemic of mass shootings in the US on his mind, contrasting it with the United Kingdom which he saw as having better public security, stricter gun laws and friendlier people. Lily wondered aloud how safe it would be to live alone or walk outside at night, concerns she does not have in Dalian, a city with an urban centre of four million residents.

Also prominent in our conversations was the souring relationship between China and the US. While spokespersons for the US State Department have insisted that they distinguish the Communist Party of China from Chinese citizens, in the minds of these students, the resentment of the Party and distrust of Chinese nationals go hand in hand. For instance, Evelyn, an exchange student in Canada who had been looking into graduate psychology programmes in the US, brought up the recent revoking of more than 1,000 Chinese students’ visas, saying it felt like ‘[Chinese] US students are being targeted’. Likewise, several students were quick to raise concerns about Americans’ attitudes towards Chinese people. Eric, a recent graduate with a major in broadcasting and media studies, started diplomatically by describing a number of American friends who had visited China and treated him well but went on to say that, ‘President Trump [is] supported by a lot of other people, and those people, I do not know their [mindset]’.

It may be tempting to discount these students’ concerns as being fuelled by Chinese state media, such as China Daily and Global Times, which sometimes publish English-language articles that intentionally counter Western media narratives and advance the interests of the Chinese government. Of course, the Chinese media is not unique in this regard, and the students acknowledged the tendency of social media and news coverage to focus on negative stories. That being said, media outlets have plenty of material to work with: US policymakers have proposed barring Chinese international students from receiving visas for STEM fields, ostensibly for national security reasons, and the country has seen such a large spike in hate crimes that online trackers and interactive maps have been developed to document Sinophobic and anti-Asian behaviours. The targeted policy measures and overt racism are piling onto existing apprehension over the US-China trade war and geopolitical rivalry.

Most of these interviewees had developed a relatively nuanced and positive impression of the US through American friends and other long-term contacts, yet they could not ignore the multiple ongoing crises and the rise in anti-Asian bigotry. Many of them are now giving serious thought to one-year taught Master’s degrees offered in the UK, both for time and cost savings and for personal security. Others have broadened their searches: Evelyn said she ‘completely changed [her] mind’ about moving to the US after earning her undergraduate degree, and is now investigating graduate programs in the Netherlands after befriending Dutch students she met in Canada.

As the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China escalates, American policymakers risk losing sight of the benefits of US-China cooperation for American technological advancement and soft power. The US State Department often cries foul over technology theft, but international graduate research assistants provide essential labour that drives scientific progress in the United States. Chinese students are not exactly hurting for alternatives, either: the UK is becoming an increasingly popular study destination, and some students are looking to South Korea, Japan, and continental Europe. If there is no change in US policy, the country risks a significant talent diversion of researchers, engineers, and entrepreneurs away from the US to countries they deem more secure and welcoming. Further, excluding Chinese nationals from American life risks widening the cultural gulf between the two nations. Before policymakers take further retaliatory measures, they would do well to consider the collateral damage to international students’ aspirations, to American soft power, and to American innovation itself.

*Students interviewed for this article chose to be identified by either their Chinese given names, English names, or nicknames. With interviewees’ consent, some basic personal information is provided to contextualize their responses while also respecting their privacy wishes.

Eric de Roulet is a PhD student in the interdisciplinary Global Studies program at the University of British Columbia. He is currently preparing to research the intersecting impacts of governance issues, international relations, and public opinion on skilled migrants' plans to study and work in the US and Canada.