US-China bilateral tensions cause number of American students to plummet

People walk near the gate of Tsinghua University in Beijing, on July 27, 2016. [Reuters]

Students from China and the U.S. have been traveling between the two countries for decades, playing an important role in cultivating people-to-people ties between the world’s top two economies. However, rising tension between Beijing and Washington in recent years is posing serious threats to this tradition.

During a talk at the Brookings Institute in Washington last week, U.S. ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said there were 15,000 American students in China “six or seven years ago,” but that number dropped to 350 in 2022. While the number of American students rebounded to 700 in 2023, Burns said the number doesn’t represent interest by Washington.

For some American students studying in China, the decision extends from their desire to enrich their understanding of the country and further strengthen their Chinese language skills.

“I’ve studied Chinese for a while, and I think if I don’t go to China, I’ll probably lose my language skills,” Brock Mullen, a student at Johns Hopkins University’s Hopkins-Nanjing Center, told VOA in a call.

As domestic political attitude towards China becomes more negative in the U.S., some students hope their experience in China could help reverse the current trend.

“There is a trend in the U.S. on both sides of the [political] aisle where people want to read about China, but very few want to come here to study China,” Sam Trizza, a student at Hopkins Nanjing Center, told VOA in a video interview, adding that he hopes to discover nuances that should be raised in the China policy landscape in the U.S through his time in China.

Over the last few years, exchanges between American and Chinese students have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising security concerns that Americans have about being physically in China.

Signaling his desire to improve people-to-people ties between China and the U.S., Chinese leader Xi Jinping said during his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco last month that Beijing is ready to welcome 50,000 American students to China on exchange or study programs in the next five years.

American students remain hesitant about studying in China

While some American officials have also expressed a desire to restart exchanges between students, some students say their programs are facing difficulties recruiting American students to study in China.

“[The goal of our program] is to have about 100 to 150 American students each year, but we only have about 30 American students here [in Nanjing,]” said Mullen from the Hopkins Nanjing Center.

According to him, a factor that causes American students to hesitate about studying in China is the impact of China’s surveillance regime or potentially being arbitrarily detained by Chinese authorities.

“A big reason why [some American students] might feel nervous about coming to China is due to concerns about surveillance or hearing stories about people being arbitrarily thrown into prison or facing exit bans,” he said.

Some current American students say one important value of studying in China is to build up a more thorough understanding of Chinese people’s views on things and the dynamics in China.

“Being in China allows me to better understand what’s happening in the country from sources other than the Chinese government’s statements,” said one American student in China who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns.

“You can have more frank conversations with Chinese people and compared to reading about China from the outside, which gives you a passive understanding of China, being in the country allows one to develop a more subtle understanding of Chinese people’s politics and their understanding of what’s going on in China and outside of China,” the student added.

Dispel stereotypes about China in the US

As it remains unclear whether the number of American students studying in China could return to the pre-pandemic level, some academics worry that important elements that help strengthen expertise on China in the U.S. may disappear over time.

“Today, we have a lot of information that we can get from a distance but what I miss the most about regularly going to China is things like the tea breaks at conferences, because that’s the time you can create an intimate space to have a conversation that wasn’t on a set agenda,” said Maggie Lewis, professor of law at Seton Hall University, adding that people can learn nuances through those personal interactions.

In her view, if interactions like this become less frequent, it could have negative impact on Washington’s efforts to manage the relationship with Beijing.

“We need the multifaceted input if we are going to navigate successfully what’s going to be a very challenging relationship between China and the U.S. for the foreseeable future,” Lewis said.

With expertise on China being in high demand in the U.S., Trizza in Nanjing said he believes his in-country experience will make him “a better candidate with more to contribute” to either the public or private sector in the U.S.

“At a time when U.S.-China relations are at an all-time low, person-to-person relationships are like grains of sand in the ocean of international relations, but I know one day we students will be the ones making the waves,” he said. “I want to get involved.”