On a chilly day in November, Bill was sitting in a cafe, doing his homework after taking his morning classes. This would be routine for many Chinese students in the U.S. in their sophomore year at New York University, except that Bill was in Shanghai and it was 2 a.m. local time. “I have to be up when everyone else around me is in bed and when I get up, it’s often dark outside,” Bill said.
This is not a schedule Bill enjoys. When NYU closed its campus in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he stayed at a friend’s home in California until August when he gave up and went back to China, his home country, where he enrolled in online classes for the new school year.
The last straw for him was the Trump administration’s decision to deport international students who only take online courses, which broke his heart, he said (the policy was scrapped less than two weeks after it became effective last July). His anxiety about being in the U.S. had also been building because of the increased scrutiny of Chinese students as the U.S. government was claiming that many were agents of Beijing. “This worries me a lot,” said Bill. “I really hope the U.S. won’t go back to the Chinese Exclusion Act era.”
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Bill, who asked to be referred to by his first name, is only one of the many Chinese students who left the U.S. to go back home as the pandemic got a grip on American life. They felt deterred by the Trump policies but also how the U.S. government was bungling the COVID-19 pandemic response compared with China and most other Asian governments. Some of the students may still come back to finish their studies when campuses are fully reopened, but many no longer plan to stay in the U.S. While Joe Biden’s election is boosting hopes that Sino-U.S. relations may have some stable years ahead, for many in the Chinese community the damage has already been done. The country may never see the same levels of Chinese students again.
In the 2019-20 school year, as in the decade before it, China was still the biggest source country of international students in the U.S., with more than 370,000 Chinese students studying here. The number reflected an increase of 0.8 percent from the previous year, but it was the lowest growth rate for a decade, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE).
The institute’s 2020 enrollment survey released in November shows that the total number of international students in U.S. higher education institutions dropped by 16% for the 2020-2021 school year and new enrollments took a 43% nosedive. According to separate statistics from the Department of State, from June to August – usually the peak time for student visa issuance – only 516 visas were issued to students in China, compared with 64,027 in the same period last year, a massive 99% drop.
“As the pandemic allows, we look forward to continuing to welcome Chinese students to the United States while protecting U.S. national security,” a spokesperson for the State Department said.
But the pandemic is not the only reason for the drop off. In his time in office, President Trump cracked down on many forms of legal immigration, heightened xenophobic rhetoric and issued a travel ban to visitors from some Muslim countries. He also proposed to curtail the Optional Practical Training program, which often provided a stepping stone to a formal job, for international students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and reducing the visa validity for international students across the board. As a result, the number of newly enrolled international students has been declining in each of the four years under Trump, after a steady increase during Obama’s presidency.
Chinese students have also been targeted as part of the political conflict between the two nations. In testimony to the Senate intelligence committee in 2018, Federal Bureau of Investigations director Christopher Wray dubbed the students as likely “nontraditional collectors” seeking to steal information for Beijing. Since then, requirements on the students have been tightening. Students specializing in certain STEM subjects in graduate programs now have to renew their visas every year rather than having one that lasts five years as it did previously. Graduates of colleges that have ties with China’s military are now banned from entering the U.S.
The Trump administration hasn’t specified which Chinese colleges are on the banned list, but there are seven colleges that traditionally focus on national defense related research, including Beihang University and Nanjing University of Science and Technology. In September, over a thousand Chinese international students had their visas revoked after the federal government decided they had attended military related schools in China. In early December, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on tourist visas for China’s Communist Party members and their families. The 92 million party members include many college students who may have joined the party only to get an advantage in the job market.
The Department of Justice began a program called the China Initiative in November 2018 to crack down on economic espionage from China. In a recently released review, the DOJ said that in the past year, the program has brought fraud, false statements, tax, smuggling and other charges against ten academics affiliated with research institutions in the U.S. The agency also said it caught six individuals studying in U.S. universities who concealed their ties with the Chinese military when applying for visas.
And Michael German, a fellow of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, called for rescinding the “China initiative,” in a recent webinar. German, who used to be an FBI agent, said that the “China initiative” gives FBI agents pressure to find cases that not only incriminate state actors but anybody who has a “nexus” to China. Some cases that started as investigations into alleged economic espionage ended up with the targets being charged for minor misconduct that had nothing to do with spying. “It shows that these people are being investigated not because there is evidence that they are engaged in economic espionage, but simply because of their Chinese origin,” German said. He is hopeful that the Biden administration can hear the outcry from the Asian community and end the program.
These investigations have created a chilling effect among Chinese scholars and students. Several of them who talked for this story including Bill, the NYU student, asked to be identified only by their first names, and some insisted on maintaining complete anonymity.
“It’s disheartening to see the decline of international students, especially knowing that part of the impetus is the exclusionary rhetoric and the immigration measures that have deterred international students from coming,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an alliance of American college and university leaders dedicated to increasing public understanding of the impact of immigration policies on campuses. “These exclusionary measures impact all international students, and the Chinese students have also been called out specifically in some of these policy measures.”
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The reversing tide is felt at a local level. A professor of computer science from the University of Colorado said that he had lost four prospective visiting scholars and students from China who were planning to work at his lab this year because of the restrictions. Three of them couldn’t get their visas even with the offers from the school, and one went to a university in Singapore instead. “These people could have contributed a lot to the lab,” said the professor, who asked not to be named because he deems the topic “sensitive.”. He added: “I’ve been talking to students in China who may be qualified to come to the U.S. for a master’s degree, and many of them showed no interest.” Professors from universities around the country expressed concerns that they wouldn’t be able to run their labs at all without Chinese students.
Frank H. Wu, president of Queens College, who has been vocal about the targeting of Chinese scientists and students, shared a joke on the Internet: “American officials are worried that Chinese are coming to steal secrets. But if the Chinese don’t come, there will be no secrets to steal.”
Education consultants who work with prospective Chinese students are feeling the squeeze.
“A big difference this year compared to last year is that we see many more parents in China have concluded that the U.S. is not friendly to Chinese people,” said Andrew H. Chen, chief learning officer of Wholeren Education, a Pittsburgh-based education consulting company that serves Chinese students. He has two clients whose visas were revoked in September because one attended a college in China that does research for military-related science, and the other attended a high school affiliated to one such college.
Meanwhile, China invested heavily in its universities, listing “world first class university and first-class academic discipline” as a major education policy since 2015. In 2016 close to 210,000 foreign students studied in degree programs in Chinese universities, according to data from China’s Ministry of Education, nearly triple the number of students in 2007.
“Already China has been moving toward building high quality universities and offering scholarships for international students. Trump and COVID-19 only reinforced that these initiatives are imperative,” said Rahul Choudaha, a researcher of international student trends. “My estimate is that there will be even more effort and energy focusing on research and knowledge production.”
Indeed, China’s rapid development, especially its success in controlling the pandemic and revitalizing its economy is setting off a reverse immigration tide among Chinese students or college graduates in the U.S.
Yi Luan, who graduated from New York University with a master’s degree four years ago, is one of them. Luan worked as a public relation manager for a restaurant chain in New York and planned to file a green card application this year before she decided to leave New York for her hometown, Beijing, in September. Soon after, Luan wrote a ten-thousand-word blog to explain her decision. Among the reasons–Americans’ resistance to masks and vaccines in the name of freedom, the escalating racial tensions in the U.S., the proposed ban on China’s WeChat social media app, the grueling process of immigration application, and a sense of alienation as an immigrant.
The article was picked up by many mainstream media outlets in China, read by millions of people and made Luan an instant celebrity. “Many Chinese students in the U.S. sent me messages afterwards, sharing their thoughts about coming back to China.” said Luan. “When I went to study in the U.S. the distance between the two countries was like 100 versus 70, and now it is like 100 versus 90. To sacrifice so much to stay in the U.S. only for that ten-point difference is really not worth it.”
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