China issues warning to students planning to study in the US

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Chinese Ministry of Education has issued a statement warning Chinese students thinking of going to the US for higher education to be aware of the risk of having their visa applications refused
  • The Trump administration as well as the FBI, congressional members, and some scientific funding and oversight agencies are increasingly worried about the prospect of intellectual property theft by Chinese students and researchers
  • A number of US institutions, including Yale, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, have offered reassurances that they continue to welcome and respect Chinese students on campus while remaining committed to the integrity of research projects

Political and trade tensions between the US and China are deepening, with potential repercussions for Chinese enrolments in American higher education. This week, China’s Ministry of Education warned Chinese students thinking about going to the US for their studies about the risks it says are associated with such a choice. The ministry statement is as follows:

“For some time, some of the visas for Chinese students studying in the United States have been restricted. The visa review period has been extended, the validity period has been shortened and the refusal rate has increased. This has affected the Chinese students studying in the United States normally or successfully completing their studies in the United States. The Ministry of Education reminds students and scholars to strengthen risk assessment before going abroad to study, enhance awareness of prevention and make appropriate preparations.”

Mr Xu Yongji, a ministry official in charge of international cooperation, said at a press conference in Beijing this week that, “The bilateral educational exchanges and cooperation have become complicated under the backdrop of the China-US economic and trade frictions.”

Huge stakes

Chinese students currently compose one-third of the international student population in the US and the tuition they pay is a crucial component of US education export revenues. More broadly, Chinese students contribute US$13 billion every year to the US economy.

American graduate programmes and science labs are also particularly reliant on Chinese students for their operations, and in 2018, the number of Chinese applying to American graduate programmes dipped by 1%. While the total number of Chinese students hit a record high in 2018, the rate of growth dipped from double-digits during the years 2007–14 to 6.8% in 2017 and 3.6% in 2018. March 2019 SEVIS data – which counts all active visa holders in the US – shows that Chinese student numbers were down by 2% compared to March 2018. The SEVIS data registers 369,365 Chinese currently on student visas in the US.

Outside of the international education industry, the extent to which the US economy is bolstered by Chinese students is not always well recognised. But as the U.S.-China Business Council notes, “in all but one US state (Alaska), education is among the top five services exported to China.”

Tit for tat

China’s allegations this week occur within an overall context in which the US government has become increasingly worried and outspoken about the potential for intellectual property theft by Chinese students and researchers working in the country.

In late 2018, the State Department restricted the length of study visas issued for Chinese students in certain STEM fields (including robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing) from five years to one year and has reserved the right to restrict or delay visas outside the STEM area on a case by case basis.

Broad-based concern

The FBI, scientific funding agencies, as well as certain members of Congress have also become more vigilant about monitoring Chinese-US research collaborations. An atmosphere of heightened caution can be felt on US campuses as well:

  • Earlier this spring, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, announced that it had fired two Chinese-American professors of human genetics, Li Xiao-Jiang and his wife Li Shihua, for “failing to disclose research funding from China and their work for Chinese universities while receiving federal grants.”
  • Some US universities are cutting ties with Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes on their campuses due to these centres’ adherence to Chinese state agenda and censorship practices; already close to a dozen have closed or have announced that they will close.

Are visa refusals growing in number?

Though an unnamed State Department official told Inside Higher Ed that, “The United States rejects the unfounded allegation [by the Chinese government this week] of a widespread and baseless campaign to deny Chinese visas,” the official also said that,

“The US intelligence and law enforcement communities have identified an increasing number of instances in which foreign intelligence services co-opt academics, researchers and others to conduct activities on behalf of foreign governments during the individual’s stay in the United States.”

The official would not disclose any data regarding the rate of visa denials to Chinese students, but Mr Yongji of the Chinese Ministry for Education detailed a pattern of refusals in the Beijing press conference earlier this week:

“According to statistics from China Scholarship Council, in 2018, China planned to fund 10,313 students to study in the US, but 331 could not go due to visa reasons; this is 3.2% of the people in the programme,” Xu said. “Between January and March of 2019, China planned to fund 1,353 students to study in the U.S., but 182 could not go due to visa reasons; this is 13.5% of the people in the programme. Since 2018, American revocation or re-review of American visas for Chinese individuals for anti-espionage reasons has spread from the natural sciences to the social sciences. Recently, the United States also canceled 10-year visas for a group of Chinese scholars engaged in the study of China-US relations.”

Jason E. Lane, dean of the University at Albany’s School of Education and a researcher of global trends in higher education, added in The Chronicle of Higher Education that US actions and rhetoric “have paved the way in part” for this week’s warning from the Chinese government to its students.

“The FBI and the National Institutes of Health have urged campuses to protect their academics’ work after sensitive research has improperly landed in China. And colleges this year pared back on some research done in and funded by China. These restrictions have led many scholars of Chinese descent to feel unfairly targeted and to question whether younger Chinese academics would want to work in the US.”

Major universities remain committed to Chinese students

As the US and Chinese governments trade blows around higher education, major US universities have released public statements emphasising their support of Chinese students on their campuses. Yale University President Peter Salovey offered a “steadfast commitment” to these students and called on federal agencies to clarify “concerns they have about international academic exchanges.”

Mr Salovey said that “In recent weeks, tensions in United States – China relations and increased scrutiny of academic exchanges have added to a sense of unease among many international students and scholars here at Yale and at universities across the country.”

He clarified that, “Our insistence on welcoming talented colleagues from around the world does not detract from our dedication to the integrity of our research. Yale takes seriously all of the legal and regulatory requirements that safeguard our research enterprise and protect our scholars from the theft of intellectual property.”

The University of Michigan and the University of California have recently offered similar reassurances to their Chinese students.

Hurt feelings

Summing up the negative government rhetoric and visa policies affecting Chinese students in the US, the Chinese Ministry of Education concluded its official statement by saying, “Such moves have offended the dignity of Chinese students in the United States and seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese people. We hope the US side can correct its mistakes as soon as possible.”
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