When 22-year-old Chinese student Langou Lian looks back at her decision to study in the United States, there’s one influence that sticks out: the Disney Channel movie High School Musical.
“I hated Chinese education,” Lian says, remembering the high-pressure test-centered schooling in her native Sichuan Province. High School Musical presented an alternative: a carefree atmosphere where even adolescent students are independent, free to speak their mind, and have a palette of social activities to choose from.
But after she arrived in the U.S., that rosy Hollywood image became complicated. “The one word that describes my impression of America before coming is freedom,” Lian says. “[But] after I studied here for a while, I started to kind of understand American society. My impression went from good to bad.”
“A lot of [Chinese] students become more patriotic,” she adds.
Her enchantment and later disillusionment isn’t uncommon for students who study abroad, but it’s never been more consequential. Lian is one of 350,000 mainland Chinese students now studying in American colleges — a number more than five times what it was just a decade ago. This rapid growth has simultaneously unfolded in Australia, the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand, and it comes at a time when China’s Communist Party sees itself in an ideological war with “the West” for the hearts and minds of its youth.
Some Western academics, politicians, and media commentators have warned that Beijing may be winning that war when it comes to its overseas students — that rather than bringing Chinese youth toward a more politically liberal outlook, study in the West may instead be arousing greater nationalism and disdain for the host countries, and in the process, bringing the Communist Party’s eyes, ears, and hostile approach to free speech onto Western campuses.
Interviews with Chinese study-abroad students and academics who research their attitudes present a complex picture — one where students enter and leave with diverse views and identities that often defy clear loyalties or ideological labels. But nevertheless, many feel caught in a geopolitical cross fire — forced to choose a side or simply keep their head down.
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“I think a lot of Americans get off on that idea — that they’re going to liberate the minds of overseas students.” —Henry Chiu Hail, UC Irvine Ph.D. candidate
“If we’re all brainwashed, why would we come to the United States?” —Han Shihao, UCSD graduate student
Last February, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), announced that the Dalai Lama would give a commencement speech later in the year. The Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace laureate, widely revered internationally, has been deemed by Chinese leaders “a wolf in monk’s robes” that stirs up ethnic tension in order to split China.
UCSD’s Facebook post announcing his appearance was immediately flooded with comments from Chinese students echoing that sentiment, some saying the school’s decision was tantamount to inviting Osama Bin Laden. The university’s chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) threatened “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior” and said that it had been in touch with the Chinese consulate about the matter.
A New York Times report three months later highlighted connections between the 150-odd CSSA chapters around the world and Chinese consulates, suggesting that Chinese authorities may play a role in at least some of the student backlash in incidents like the one at UCSD. The report asserted that, in addition to the tuition dollars and international diversity that Chinese students bring to Western universities, “those students often bring to campus something else from home: the watchful eyes and occasionally heavy hand of the Chinese government.”
Days before the commencement speech, several CSSA members set up posters and distributed flyers on campus to “share a different perspective” on the Dalai Lama. They were confronted by American students who called them “brainwashed,” to which one Chinese student retorted, “What you hear in America is subjective as well.”
Regardless of what, if any, role Chinese consular officials played in the backlash, most of the anger was undoubtedly genuine. Han Shihao, a UCSD international politics graduate student from Shenzhen not affiliated with the CSSA, wrote an op-ed in a student blog calling the Dalai Lama a “chess piece.” He claimed the invitation was an affront to the 3,600 Chinese students on campus that “displayed ignorance of the voice from a minority group.”
When interviewed, Han conceded that the Communist Party’s narrative about the Dalai Lama is “propaganda” that isn’t always true. But what irked him enough to write the article was what he saw as hypocritical criticism of China’s Tibet policies by American peers. “They apply their standards of liberty, human rights, and democracy to all these circumstances despite the fact that the U.S. itself has done many of these kinds of things in the past,” he says, citing the annexation of Hawaii, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1983 invasion of Grenada. “Invasion by America is considered an act of preserving human rights and democracy. But if it’s something China did, it’s not. You can’t just apply this double standard.”
Han says that since coming to the U.S. he’s been disappointed by American disinterest in understanding, or even listening to, views like these. Growing up in China, he says, despite government propaganda, he came to see the U.S. as a beacon of freedom, liberalism, and open-mindedness. “But after a lot of people come here, they realize it’s not like that,” he says. “If you’re Chinese, when people talk about politics and democracy, you’ll always be targeted.”
“They try to put us under one very radical label,” he continues. “Like, ‘Chinese people are lovers of dictatorships’ — things like that. At times, it’s very aggressive.”
While many of his views do align with the Communist Party’s, Han was quick to point out that there are plenty of points on which they diverge. “I still believe that the Communist Party, even with all the bad things it’s done in the past, can give China a more prosperous future,” he says. “But at the same time, I do think that [it] should allow more — like, it should stop internet censorship, or at least lessen it.”
He says that most of his Chinese classmates in the U.S. have complicated views toward their country’s policies and can be quite critical of their government, even if they don’t advocate its overthrow. This makes it especially irritating when American classmates dismiss them as “brainwashed” for not opposing one-party rule. “If we’re all brainwashed, why would we come to the United States?” he asks. “We want to learn about how things work here. On the contrary, many Americans have never been to China, never read anything serious about China, and just indulge in propaganda themselves.”
“They become kind of disenchanted with the notion of objectivity, freedom of expression, democratic values — all of the things they actually came to learn about in the first place.” —Wanning Sun, professor in Sydney
Henry Chiu Hail, an American Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the UC Irvine, recalled a decade ago befriending a Chinese classmate during his M.A. study. “I thought I would shock her with American democracy and show her all this stuff she never knew about her own country,” Hail says. “I think a lot of Americans get off on that idea — that they’re going to liberate the minds of overseas students.”
As he began sending her materials critical of China’s government and the 1989 Beijing massacre, he found that her interest quickly turned to defensiveness and even charges that Americans are anti-China. The experience piqued his curiosity, and led him to conduct a qualitative study in which he interviewed 18 Chinese students at the University of Hawaii about past political discussions with Americans. “On some level, every single one of them was able to relate to this idea that Americans are biased or ignorant about China,” he says.
In many ways, interactions like these play right into the “Patriotic Education Campaign,” which all Chinese students are subjected to growing up. Instituted in the early 1990s in the aftermath of the Tiananmen uprising, the curriculum began emphasizing Chinese nationalism and the country’s 5,000 years of greatness — interrupted by imperialistic atrocities inflicted by “the West” and Japan during a “Century of Humiliation” (1839–1949).
The Communist Party credits itself with ending this humiliation and lifting China back to its position of strength and respect in the world, but notes that the former imperialists still desire to undermine that rise. This narrative also asserts that China’s economic success under one-party rule shows that “Western democracy” is unsuitable for the country’s national conditions. Those who say otherwise are arrogant, don’t understand the country, or have ulterior motives. One question from a graduate school entrance exam, for instance, juxtaposes the 2008 Global Financial Crisis with Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 “End of History” essay arguing that Western liberal democracy is the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution. “However, 20 years of history has shown us that history didn’t end,” the test asserts. “What ended was the Western sense of superiority.”
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“The combination of dealing with national identity and personal insecurity is a pretty potent mix.” —Wang Zilong, Hampshire College graduate
“When I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away. The air was so sweet and fresh, and oddly luxurious.” —Yang Shuping, University of Maryland graduate
Wang Zilong was 18 years old when he came from China in 2009 to study at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Coming of age in urban Shanghai, he watched skyscrapers swiftly climb into the clouds and people’s lives steadily improve. But when he began speaking with American classmates, he was blindsided by how negative their impressions of his country were. “What really pushed my buttons was the human rights issue,” he says. “Like Tibet and all these topics where the West can get the moral high ground. And the way they talked to me was like saying, ‘I am personally superior to you.’”
Though he had to memorize and recite phrases related to these issues ad nauseam in school, he’d never really given them deep thought. But now, they were inextricably tied up with his identity. “In China, I never noticed I’m Chinese because everyone is Chinese,” he says. “But then coming to the U.S., the first thing people ask is where you’re from, and then their interaction with you goes from that point on.”
He was mortified to learn that, for some of his peers, his identity included things like eating cats and dogs — something he finds deeply offensive — and that he should answer for sociopolitical issues he hardly knew or cared about. When challenged on these issues, he often found himself resorting to propaganda phrases he didn’t necessarily believe in: “That’s our internal affair” and “The West always applies double standards.”
Even as he gained a better grasp of these issues, he still argued with classmates, even if deep down he agreed with them. “Maybe just 5 percent of these conversations were rational dialogue where we were trying to learn more and be open-minded,” Wang says. “Most of it was just knee-jerk reactions on both ends.
“When we’re 18, we’re very self-conscious and pretty insecure about our self-identity anyway,” he adds. “I think the combination of dealing with national identity and personal insecurity is a pretty potent mix.”
Henry Chiu Hail recalls that during his interviews, his subjects would often begin to criticize things like China’s widespread corruption, only to backtrack and express guilt for betraying their country in front of an American. Many of his subjects affirmed that they had frequently criticized the Chinese government when they lived in China. “While abroad, however, the concepts of ‘the people’ and ‘the government’ tended to blend together as national identity became more salient,” he writes. “Chinese students often find themselves in situations where they must find a way to reconcile the demands of their Chinese identity with their identities as friends and colleagues of American people.”
For all who end up with a stronger Chinese identity during that reconciliation, there are also those like Yang Shuping who go hard in the other direction. Last May, the graduating University of Maryland senior was chosen to deliver a commencement speech. “When I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away,” she said in the eight-minute address. “The air was so sweet and fresh, and oddly luxurious.
“At the University of Maryland, I soon [felt] another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful,” she continued. “The fresh air of free speech.”
She described how growing up in China, she had to wear a face mask every time she went outside (a claim many residents of her hometown found unlikely). Upon coming to America, in addition to the fresh air, she was also pleasantly “shocked” by how freely things like the 1992 Rodney King beating and subsequent riots could be broadcast. “I have always had a burning desire to tell these kinds of stories, but I was convinced that only authorities own the narrative, only authorities could define the truth.”
The speech received cheers and a standing ovation from those in attendance. But within a day, Yang learned that what might endear you to American peers can make you public enemy No. 1 back home.
Videos of the remarks immediately went viral on Chinese social media, racking up tens of millions of views. The University of Maryland’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association quickly released its own video expressing pride in China and calling Yang’s remarks “deceptions and lies.” State media — including the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily — piled on with a raft of articles and commentaries condemning Yang. Some social media users called for a “human flesh search” to dig into her background — the supposed home address of her family was circulated in the comments sections of articles. Even the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs weighed in. “Any Chinese citizen should be responsible for the remarks he or she makes,” a spokesman said, adding that the Chinese government will support its overseas students “as long as they love their country deep down in their heart and stand ready to contribute to it.”
If the aim was to deter others from espousing views like Yang’s in the future, it worked. Multiple students interviewed for this piece said her vilification influenced what they’d be willing to say publicly. The day after delivering the speech, Yang posted an apology on Weibo. “I love my country and hometown and am proud of its prosperity,” she said. “I’m deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness.”
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“Cancel their visas and send them all back to China today.” —Alan Jones, Australian radio broadcaster
Young adults like Yang Shuping who develop an enthusiastic appreciation for Western societies (particularly in the political realm) are one of the Communist Party’s greatest fears, and some analysts say it’s going to greater and greater lengths to neutralize them.
In 2013, an internal Party communiqué instructed cadres to stop schools and media from discussing taboo topics that included Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, press freedom, historical nihilism, and questioning whether China’s system is truly socialist. It’s widely thought to be what precipitated an extensive campaign against “Western values.”
Over the past year, this campaign has zeroed in on domestic universities with ideological inspections of teaching staff and the bolstering of political education. But the roughly 800,000 Chinese students studying in overseas universities not under the Party’s control present a blind spot, and authorities have made no secret that they view them as a critical constituency — potentially even a security threat.
Some Party arms have tried to disincentivize studying abroad. Restrictions have tightened on international schools that prepare students for overseas study. Some students have reported trouble accessing foreign admissions websites through China’s censored internet. Meanwhile, state media provides a steady drumbeat of reasons not to study overseas (it’s hard to find a marriage partner, it no longer assures you employment, you can get kidnapped and murdered and local authorities won’t care, etc.).
Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham Law School and author of the forthcoming book End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise, says that the ethos of the post-1979 reform period has been that China needs to learn from the outside in order to develop at home. But that page is now turning. “There are questions being raised at a very deep level within the bureaucracy about how valuable that stuff from outside is,” Minzner says. “This nativist turn is leading Beijing to steadily impose stronger curbs on influences viewed as ‘foreign’ — whether it be Christmas traditions or overseas academic publications.”
The United Front Work Department, charged with managing relations with critical groups outside of the Communist Party, has identified overseas students as one of 12 special targets for ideological guidance and promotion of Party policies. The organization has said focusing on these students is important for “consolidating and expanding the Party’s popular base.” A 2016 Ministry of Education document similarly called for a network linking “the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad” in order to harness “patriotic energy” among overseas students.
As Chinese student numbers have grown internationally, so have warnings that this “patriotic energy” has indeed been activated to the detriment of academic freedom and Western higher education. Nowhere has the volume of these warnings been louder than in Australia, where students from mainland China now make up more than 6 percent of the country’s total university enrollments (compared with 1.7 percent in the U.S.).
Last year, four separate incidents involving Chinese students in Australian universities gained national notoriety. One lecturer used a map showing Chinese-claimed territory as India’s. Another referred to Taiwan as an independent country and was secretly recorded in a confrontation with Chinese students over it. A third posted a warning not to cheat written in English and Chinese. And a fourth used a test question suggesting Chinese officials are only truthful when “drunk or careless.” News of the incidents spread on social media, were picked up by Chinese state media, and yielded fierce backlash against the lecturers — three of whom later issued apologies. The fourth was suspended by his university.
The Australian newspaper reported of a “war being waged by Chinese international students against ‘politically incorrect’ lecturers in Australia.” The News Corp–owned News.com.au said, “Australian educators are increasingly coming under attack from Chinese students, raising concerns their government’s influence is permeating our universities.” Conservative radio broadcaster Alan Jones gave perhaps the most pointed remarks. “Chinese students are bullying their Australian lecturers at our universities,” he tweeted. “Cancel their visas and send them all back to China today.”
Senior government officials, including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, later weighed in. In remarks reportedly aimed at Chinese students with Communist Party affiliations, she said that people coming to Australia should respect its values of openness and free speech. “We don’t want to see freedom of speech curbed in any way involving foreign students or foreign academics,” she said.
But some Australian academics researching Chinese international students say the prevailing narrative is leaving a skewed picture that may be having a detrimental impact on the broader Chinese student population. “Too often reports can be quite sensational, sometimes quite alarmist,” said Wanning Sun, a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Technology Sydney, in a recent podcast. “In the case of the PRC students, I would say the actions of a few hot-headed individuals are often represented as typical of the entire student cohort.”
Sun, who has been running focus groups with Chinese students in universities around Australia, said her subjects have a wide range of ideological outlooks — often strongly at odds with those involved in the four infamous incidents. But government and media narratives that have emerged about “Chinese students” in the country have left many feeling under siege. “They become kind of disenchanted with the notion of objectivity, freedom of expression, democratic values — all of the things they actually came to learn about in the first place,” Sun says. “I think [it’s] really ironic.”
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“This whole idea that Chinese students are spies is really unhelpful, and I think it alienates this group in ways different from other international student groups.” —Fran Martin, University of Melbourne associate professor
“It pissed me off, but that’s when I realized I was really affected by the Chinese education system — always taught to defend our country no matter what.” —Joanne Gong, Kansas State University student
The vast majority of Chinese students studying abroad never have contact with authorities from their country, but Chinese government operations on foreign campuses seeking to use and influence its students do exist. The head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization warned last year — not naming China specifically — that Australia needs to be conscious of foreign influence in its universities, which affects the behavior of lecturers and foreign students.
The scope of these operations is difficult to determine, but professors at universities around the world have recounted instances of students reporting back to higher officials on the activities of their classmates and lecturers — sometimes under duress. Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, recalled having had multiple students apply to be his research assistant, only to later discover that they were acting at the behest of Chinese consular officials. He also knows that his lectures — and what Chinese students say in them — have been monitored. “I’ve had students suddenly been given warnings by Chinese officials about me or things they’ve said in class,” he says. “In one case, it happened within a few hours of it being said.”
Sally Sargeson, an associate professor at Australian National University who teaches courses in Chinese politics, says multiple Chinese students have expressed fears of this happening to them. “I had a student in tears in my office saying that she dare not speak up in class,” Sargeson says. “Other students I know of have had parents in China contacted by public security, invited to come have tea, and told they need to keep their child in Australia in line.”
Chinese Students and Scholars Associations — campus groups that predominantly organize social activities and practical assistance for students — are a natural attraction for many new arrivals transitioning to life abroad. Recently, though, they’ve come under scrutiny for some chapters’ murky ties to Chinese consulates and attempts to shut down activities critical of Communist Party interests. Last year at England’s Durham University, the CSSA and Chinese Embassy in London teamed up to try blocking an event featuring a Falun Gong–practicing beauty queen who’s been outspoken against the Communist Party. Later in the year, a student journalist at the Australian National University reported that he was followed and intimidated by CSSA members while covering an “I love China 2.0” National Day gala organized by the CSSA and funded by the Chinese Embassy.
Instances like these and the backlash at UCSD and the University of Maryland have highlighted a sometimes blurry line between spontaneous student expressions of patriotic sentiment and overt intervention by Chinese authorities. And amid growing worries of covert Chinese government influence operations abroad, some fear that the wider Chinese population is being lumped together with both, and further alienated in the process.
Fran Martin, an associate professor in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, has been conducting a five-year ethnographic study of 50 female Chinese students at universities in three Australian cities. She says that anxiety over Communist Party influence in Australia has collided with more insidious racist backlash to the growing Chinese presence in the country, which has given many of her students the feeling of an “anti-China” atmosphere.
“I’m not denying that Beijing has a broader strategy for soft power, or indeed hard power, abroad,” Martin says. “It clearly does. But this whole idea that Chinese students are spies is really unhelpful, and I think it alienates this group in ways different from other international student groups.
“And they’re really aware of it,” she adds.
The coexistence of racism and actual (if limited) Communist Party influence activities has aided Chinese officials in conflating the former with any scrutiny of the latter. In response to allegations of running covert operations in the country, the Chinese Embassy in Australia released a statement calling the charges “typical anti-China hysteria,” adding that Australian media have “unscrupulously vilified the Chinese students as well as the Chinese community in Australia with racial prejudice.”
These political complications are converging with other sources of alienation for many Chinese students. Martin notes that only about 10 percent of the students in her research cohort have managed to form meaningful relationships with locals outside the Chinese community. One 2014 Australian government survey found that mainland Chinese students’ satisfaction with opportunities to interact with Australians is nearly 10 percent lower than for other international student groups. “I do think there’s a strong current of disappointment at the level of social exclusion many Chinese students experience over here,” Martin says. “They find themselves excluded from a lot of aspects of local society that they would rather be part of.”
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“They’re emotionally and psychologically unprepared, so they go into their own little corner for four years.” —Jiang Xueqin, education researcher
“Colleges and universities first try to solve the financial problem, then try to solve the needs of the students that are there.” —Peggy Blumenthal, Institute of International Education
When Chinese students first began to go abroad in large numbers in the 1980s, they were predominantly top-performing graduate students on government scholarships. But today, more than 90 percent receive no tuition assistance, meaning their demographic makeup skews heavily toward the urban middle and upper classes that have benefited most from China’s economic growth. This emerging cohort has been increasingly anxious for its kids to escape the country’s stressful and highly regimented education system.
International students willing to pay full freight represent an opportune source of revenue for Western universities struggling with government budget cuts, particularly since the Global Financial Crisis. A 2016 California state audit, for instance, found that the University of California system had lowered admissions standards for out-of-state students (36 percent of whom are from mainland China) for the purpose of collecting more tuition fees.
Many critics charge that this has yielded large subgroups of Chinese international students who are linguistically and academically unprepared to succeed. “You’re admitting nonqualified students for financial reasons, so you impose a burden on the Chinese students through no fault of their own,” says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “And it used to be that for students coming from China to American universities, it was seen as a big transformational move. Now it’s seen as a transactional arrangement by many students.”
Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education, says many universities that have undertaken aggressive recruitment of Chinese students have not taken corresponding measures to help them adjust once they arrive. “Colleges and universities first try to solve the financial problem, then try to solve the needs of the students that are there,” she says. “So you’re going to see a lag.”
In some communities, the steady increase in Chinese enrollment has bred local resentment. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign now has one of the largest Chinese student populations in the U.S., with nearly 5,900. In December, a local bus shuttle company distributed an advertisement listing its advantages, one of them being “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
After criticism of the ad, the company issued an “apology” for “offending half the planet,” but effectively dug itself deeper while echoing a common complaint. “This high percentage of nonnative English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students,” it said, adding that having different cultures and ethnicities is valuable, “but we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder.”
On other campuses, hostility has been even more overt: flyers offering “ethical lessons” to Chinese at the University of Texas; a New Zealand teacher calling Chinese students “idiots” and telling them to go back to their own country; graffiti at the University of Sydney depicting a swastika with the phrase “Kill Chinese.” In December, the Chinese Embassy in Australia issued a warning about safety risks and “several cases of assaults and attacks against Chinese students.”
Local resentment has also helped inflate ever-larger Chinese “bubbles” that alienated students retreat into. “[Students have] been put in a very awkward situation and forced to deal with a new culture they don’t understand, so often they just revert back to a shell mentality,” says Jiang Xueqin, a Beijing-based education researcher who’s managed programs for Chinese high school students preparing to study abroad. “They’re emotionally and psychologically unprepared, so they go into their own little corner for four years.”
Research on Chinese study-abroad student attitudes has been limited, but the few surveys that have been conducted have presented a mixed picture. One 2016 survey of nearly 1,000 Chinese students studying at Purdue — a large public university in rural Indiana — found that 29 percent reported developing a more negative attitude toward the United States since their arrival, with 26 percent reporting a more positive attitude, and the rest remaining unchanged. “It basically depends on whom you talk with,” says Fenggang Yang, the Purdue sociologist who conducted the survey. “Some move in one direction, others in the other direction.”
Opinions were a bit less diverse when it came to their own country. Forty-four percent said their attitude toward China had become more positive since coming to the U.S., with 17 percent reporting a more negative view.
But these numbers may belie more complex ideological changes. Joanne Gong, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Kansas State University, remembers first arriving at the rural college town of Manhattan, Kansas, in the dead of night surrounded by farmland and an eerie silence. “I felt really upset,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, God, this is the life I chose? I don’t know how I’m going to survive the next three years here.’”
She came mostly because she hated how China’s education system restricted her thinking, and she had an obsession with the teen drama Gossip Girl to boot. But upon arrival, she struggled with studying in a foreign language. She found that she spent most of her time at home, burdened with study and uncomfortable with the late-night drinking and partying that dominated the campus social scene. “I don’t really feel like I belong to this university,” she says. “Most students are nice, but I don’t think I can really be friends with them.”
These sorts of academic and social challenges can take their toll. One Yale study found that 45 percent of the Chinese students surveyed reported symptoms of depression — triple the rate of the general population at American universities. Studies in the U.K. and Australia have yielded similar results.
However, Gong did come to appreciate many aspects of American society — how people seem to be less judgmental of women, and how homosexuals and other traditionally marginalized groups receive less discrimination. And while her schoolwork has often been a struggle, she relishes the fact that her teachers encourage her to think rather than memorize. “The longer I stay here, the more complicated the feeling is,” she says. “It’s really hard sometimes — I have those mental breakdowns every once in a while — but still, I’ll always choose to study in America.”
She doesn’t know what she’ll do after graduating, but she knows she doesn’t want to return to China. This hasn’t gone over well with her father. “He asks why I’m so obsessed with other countries,” she says. “He says, ‘You should love your motherland. Don’t be such a rebel.’”
The idea of being a rebel bemuses her, since she’s often been upset by criticism of China from classmates of other countries. “I know [China’s] not a free country and the president isn’t perfect,” she says. “But I don’t really like people talking shit about it. They think Communism is so bad and that China is under the same situation as North Korea, but it’s not.”
She remembers biting her lip once when a Taiwanese classmate referred to Taiwan as a country. “It was in front of many Chinese students and no one stood up to defend,” she recalls with disappointment. “I should have [challenged her], but I was such a coward, so I didn’t.” In another situation, she did speak up to defend China’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands when a peer said the disputed territory belonged to Japan. “It pissed me off, but that’s when I realized I was really affected by the Chinese education system — always taught to defend our country no matter what.”
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“They are clear that the worldview they receive in China is partial and are receptive to a respectfully put corrective.” —Jonathan Sullivan, University of Nottingham instructor
“It’s just when they say China is bad compared with America. Then I’m just like, ‘Um, this country is in a terrible situation, too, and this past election totally proved it.’” —Langou Lian, student
A recent graduate from Shanghai, who goes by the English name Forrest, recalls that when he was preparing to study in the U.S., a family friend warned that his son’s English actually got worse while studying in Canada for four years. This made Forrest determined to avoid falling into a Chinese bubble.
When he arrived at UC Berkeley, he was indeed struck by how many of his classmates insulated themselves in Chinese enclaves. “Even with one religion, there are four separate clubs for students from the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao,” he says. “They’re so good at creating divisions.”
He arrived with a very admirable view of most things American — movies, music, role models, technology, and political freedoms. In high school, he frequently recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to practice English. But after arriving, he was surprised by the financial struggles many of his American classmates went through and the widespread poverty around San Francisco. “I realized, ‘Oh, not everybody is that wealthy,’” he says. And even in the famously liberal bastion, he’d been called a “chink.” Another Chinese classmate had trash thrown at him by a stranger and was told to go back to his own country. “But most of the time, racism is silent,” Forrest says. “They won’t say it to your face.”
Nevertheless, his overall admiration of the U.S. didn’t change. He professed to hold the mainstream American perspective on most political issues, though he usually avoids talking about it. “I want to stay out of the political shit,” he says. “It’s just too messy. I normally don’t start a conversation with people saying, ‘What do you think of Taiwan?’ That’s pretty much picking a fight.”
A separate Chinese sophomore at UC Berkeley (name withheld for her safety) was less restrained. When asked in what way her thinking had changed the most since arriving, she didn’t hesitate. “On Taiwan,” she replies. “I’ve realized China’s position is ridiculous. Taiwan can be independent.”
While they tend to get far less attention than those who aggressively defend China’s political positions, students like this are common. Jonathan Sullivan, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, teaches courses in Chinese politics that routinely delve into sensitive issues like Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. He says the prevailing narrative about nationalist Chinese students needs balance. With his students from mainland China, there are often spirited discussions, but he’s never had an unpleasant dustup. “I have had many Chinese students thank me for illuminating their own understanding about China,” he says. “They are clear that the worldview they receive in China is partial and are receptive to a respectfully put corrective.”
Past studies, while again very limited in scope, suggest that many Chinese students do reject their political education without even leaving China. One 2007 survey of students at several Beijing universities found that 56 percent said they liked the overall American political system and only 4 percent disliked it (the rest were neutral). This decisively beat the 28 percent who said they liked China’s overall political system; 22 percent expressed dislike.
A separate 2011 survey of students at one college similarly found that 73 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “Western political systems are very appropriate for [China].” Only 7 percent disagreed. The same study found that the political education that Chinese students are subject to isn’t particularly effective at endearing them to their leadership — greater comprehension of the education didn’t correlate with greater support of the Chinese government (though it did make them less inclined to express dissent through activities like joining a strike or protest).
Haifeng Huang, the UC Merced political scientist who conducted the study, also ran a separate survey of university students in China gauging what makes them want to go abroad. He found that overestimation of foreign countries’ socioeconomic conditions strongly correlated with interest in going abroad. It likewise correlated with having more negative views of China and the Chinese government. “But once they come to the West, they often realize there are a lot of things that aren’t as good as they thought before,” Huang says. “So they update their perceptions. But having Chinese students coming to the West is a very complicated phenomenon.”
When surveys of students in domestic Chinese universities are compared with those studying in the U.S., they appear to give some credence to the idea that study abroad tempers admiration of democratic political systems, though it’s far from a universal experience. The survey of Chinese students at Purdue found that 37 percent professed a belief that democracy is better than any other form of government (28 percent disagreed and the rest were neutral). But 43 percent agreed that “China’s current political system is the most suitable one for China”; 27 percent disagreed.
A separate 2013 survey of Chinese students across more than 60 American universities asked whether they think “Western democracy” can be applied to China. Thirty-three percent said yes, 25 percent said no, with the remaining 41 percent responding that it’s hard to say. In the same survey, about 49 percent agreed that China’s human rights situation is bad; 28 percent disagreed.
Peggy Blumenthal of the Institute of International Education says she’s not particularly worried about students’ perceptions of the U.S. being lowered while studying there. “We take that gamble when we invite international students or scholars here,” she says. “We assume they’ll benefit from understanding our culture, good and bad. It’s not that they’ll love our culture, but they will understand more of what it’s about.”
She noted that Communist Party surveillance and influence activities are nothing new — they’ve existed on Western campuses for decades — and some of the issues contributing to alienation among Chinese students are improving. Schools are recognizing the need to invest more resources to help international students adjust, and Chinese students are coming at younger ages — at the undergraduate level and below — when they’re more likely to integrate with local peers. She scoffed at the idea that academic freedom is being undermined by Chinese authorities or students. “I think there are many other things more threatening to Western academic freedom than that,” she says.
Jiang Xueqin, the Beijing-based education researcher, was less sanguine. He says there’s been a rapid uptick of “woefully inadequately prepared” Chinese students in the U.S., which is cultivating more nationalistic anti-American attitudes and setting the stage for harmful long-term consequences. “A lot of the responsibility is also with the Americans,” he adds. “The American mentality is becoming very provincial, very isolationist. Look at someone like Trump, right?”
Like most students interviewed, Langou Lian, the student inspired by High School Musical, fell somewhere in between loving and hating her sojourn country. She said that while her initial rosy image of the of the U.S. was crushed, she still relishes the education she’s received and doesn’t regret coming. But she’s still not particularly patient with what she sees as American arrogance. “I don’t really mind if [people] say China has a terrible government or human rights,” she says. “I totally agree. It’s just when they say China is bad compared with America. Then I’m just like, ‘Um, this country is in a terrible situation, too, and this past election totally proved it.’”