Chinese international students under US-China tension: Are they changing their plans for the future?

Hundreds of prospective students and their families attended the educational fair in Shenzhen, China, in October to learn about applying to colleges abroad. (Amy Ouyang/MEDILL)

By Amy Ouyang
Medill Reports

Since the winter break of last year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology junior Vivian Hou has been in China for almost a year. This is the longest “break” she has ever had since she went abroad to study in a U.S. high school seven years ago, she says, and what scares her the most is that this “break” doesn’t seem to end anytime soon.

“We have heard rumors that MIT is almost definitely going to continue with remote learning for the subsequent semester,” Hou said. “Even if it resumes in-person classes, I still don’t know when I will be able to go back to the United States given the current travel ban and the closure of embassies worldwide.”

Before enacting a supposedly temporary travel ban against non-U.S. travelers from China and Iran in January, the State Department had already closed all U.S. embassies and suspended routine visa services because of the seriousness of the pandemic in China at that time. International students who haven’t obtained an F-1 (student) visa yet or whose current visa has expired must wait for the embassies’ re-opening to apply for a new one to enter the U.S. And now, in November, no one knows for sure how long is that going to take.

“We thought that the embassies were going to re-open soon as the situation in China is much better now,” Boston University junior Stella Huang says. “But it doesn’t seem to be the case. I start to worry whether the closure of the embassies might be related to the worsening bilateral relationship rather than the pandemic alone.”

The past 11 months have witnessed the increasing tension between the United States and China. To some, the closure of both the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston and subsequently the closure of U.S. Consulate-General in Chengdu pointed to an unprecedentedly worsening relationship since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. President Donald Trump reinforced such tension with the proclamation barring Chinese graduate students and researchers who have ties with the military on May 29 and the executive order proposing to ban Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat in the U.S. on Aug. 6.

The increasing tension between the two countries led to anxiety in the international student community. The uncertainty led many international students and their families to re-think their decision to study abroad in the United States.

“When I heard the closure of both consulates, I was terrified,” Jingfei Hu said. “My parents urged me to think about alternative plans for graduate school, likely potentially going to the U.K. or other countries instead of the U.S.”

Similar to Hu, many Chinese international students, including those who have already studied in the US for a while, started to worry about the feasibility of continuing their studies in the US.

“I was planning to continue my graduate studies in the U.S. since the program in the U.S. was recognized to be the best,” Hou said. “After witnessing the recent escalation of tension between the U.S. and China, however, I started to look to other programs elsewhere. I am afraid that I will be targeted if I were to stay in the US if the bilateral relationship continued to worsen.”

But, it’s unlikely the number of international students planning to study in the U.S. is going to drop significantly, according to recent data. In a recent report by higher education services company Quacquarelli Symonds, only 6% of surveyed Chinese students indicated that they were considering changing destinations, and 4% indicated that they might completely abandon the plan to study abroad.

Alice Xi, education counselor at EIC, a company specializing in helping students applying to foreign colleges in China, acknowledged the commonly shared worries in the international student community but pointed out that the U.S. is still the most popular destination for Chinese students.

“We heard many such worries from parents and prospective students,” Xi said. “But they didn’t abandon their plans to study in the US altogether just because of the recent power struggle between the two countries. Yes, they are carefully re-thinking that decision and trying to find the alternatives. But because of the reputation of the high-quality education in the U.S., it is still their best choice.”

Xi further elaborated that she, among other experts, thinks that the heightened tension is only going to be temporary.

“Many of us are now having the conversation about how the U.S.-China relationship might affect individual students,” Xi said. “We have talked to many experts in the realm of international studies and foreign affairs. Most of us agreed that it is likely only to be temporary as targeting China might give President Trump an advantage in the upcoming elections. But it is unlikely that such tension is going to be further escalated regardless of whether he wins or loses. The impact on individual students is even more minimal.”

Even if she and her family are looking for alternatives, Hu said that she doesn’t think that the tension is going to be long-lasting. Her priority is still applying to schools in the U.S.

“I don’t think it is not advantageous to both China and the United States to continue to exhibit as much antagonism towards each other,” Hu said. “My priority is, for sure, to get the best education I can possibly get and the United States seems to be the most suitable choice.”

Amy Ouyang is a social justice reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Hanyue_Ouyang