Fulbrighters speak out against cancellation of China program  

Foreign Affairs

More than 50 Americans had received Fulbright scholarships to research and teach in China and Hong Kong in 2020-21. They now won't be able to, thanks to Trump's misguided belief of who actually benefits from international exchange programs.

404 on website of fulbright program in China
Image by John Oquist

On July 14, Donald Trump issued an executive order that ended Hong Kong’s special trading status with the United States. Included in this order was a provision urging the U.S. to “take steps to terminate the Fulbright exchange program with regard to China and Hong Kong.”

Since its founding in 1946, more than 390,000 people have participated in the Fulbright international exchange program, which currently operates in more than 160 countries. But as of now, China and Hong Kong have officially been removed.

On July 24, current Fulbright recipients received an email sent by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that confirmed the program will not operate in China and Hong Kong in the 2020-21 academic year. It did not say whether operations in those places could resume at a later date.

More than 50 students and scholars from the U.S. had received Fulbrights to research and teach in China and Hong Kong in 2020-21. They have been offered a chance to switch their destination country, though that has not served as much consolation.

Instead, Fulbright grantees have teamed up with alumni to challenge Trump’s order. Fulbright Lotus, an affinity group for Asian Fulbrighters, created a petition on Change.org that has amassed more than 2,000 signatures in the past week. It includes a call to action, urging people to contact their representatives, senators, and the 12-person Fulbright Board, and inviting people to submit their personal Fulbright narratives.

“The real benefit of the Fulbright program is this citizen connection, breaking down barriers, and building bridges person to person,” said Amanda Schmidt, an associate professor at Oberlin College and a two-time alumna of the Fulbright program in China. When individuals return from their Fulbright experience, they bring their new perspectives to the work that they do, Schmidt said, further expanding the impact of this program.

Like other recent decisions made by the U.S. regarding China, this provision was issued unexpectedly and without explanation. Some view this decision as part of an attempt to punish China — even though it really only punishes American students.

The decision is “a threat to intellectual discourse, cultural exchange, and our national security,” said Yiyi Wong, a Fulbright in China alum. “Although our relations with China and Hong Kong have not existed as long as those in Europe, in many ways this connection is more important, as most of our supply chain and affordable goods come from China.”

The future of international exchange between the U.S. and China, which was already in jeopardy, now looks worse off than ever. In 2017, the Trump Administration made attempts to cut the entire Fulbright program. Confucius Institutes, the Chinese-funded language and cultural programs, have been closing across the country. The Peace Corps China program was unexpectedly terminated this past January. The U.S. recently ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston — and China reciprocated by closing the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.

In the context of mutual distrust and rising anti-Asian racism in addition to anti-China sentiment in the U.S., “[Trump’s announcement is] a direct way of saying we support prejudice and bigotry, we don’t support people getting to know each other,” said Tami Blumenfield, a two-time alumna of the Fulbright program in China.

Jordyn Haime, a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire who was preparing to spend the upcoming year in Nanjing, added that the termination of the Fulbright program “could destroy the relationship we have been working to build with China for the past 30 or so years.”

For those who received a Fulbright for the upcoming year, their start date had been postponed from September to March because of the pandemic. The abrupt cancellation of the Fulbright program in China and Hong Kong will further complicate their plans.

“I feel like my life trajectory has been building me up for a substantive experience to study in China, talk to Chinese people, talk to Chinese policy makers, and talk to other people who are experiencing China to understand China better,” a recent Fulbright grantee said. “You can’t do that from anywhere that’s not China. That’s the point of Fulbright, that’s why this program was created. If we could do the things we wanted to do from the United States, we would do them.”

Daniel Tam-Claiborne, a recent graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, was planning to travel to Guangzhou on a Fulbright to conduct ethnographic research for his novel. “To allocate some time and resources in order to be able to do that was just such an enormous gift,” he said. By eliminating the Fulbright program in China and Hong Kong, this project that he has been thinking about for the past three years may be on hold indefinitely.

Tam-Claiborne added that this decision could have enormous repercussions, affecting international exchange in both countries. “The next generation might be in a position where they really don’t have a lot of firsthand knowledge and information about China,” he said.

Also see:

Biden should bring back the China Fulbright program