John F. Copper: Where are the Chinese students going?

Sep 1, 2022
Asian female student smile and look to you with Australian flag

According to recent data published in China and admission reports from U.S. universities, the number of Chinese students applying for study in American institutions of higher learning in recent months has fallen markedly.

By the U.S. State Department’s count of Chinese students seeking visas to study in America the number has dropped in 2022 to less than half those that applied in 2019.

Since Chinese students constitute a third of international students studying in the U.S. this has had an Impact. Because they are at the top in intellectual quality among the foreign students in the U.S, this has had been to the detriment of higher education in the U.S. Also, most of them pay; thus, the dollar cost loss comprises a good chunk of the double-digit billions of dollars foreign students inject into the coffers of universities and colleges in America.

Questions are being asked! First of all, what has caused this plummeting of the tally of Chinese students yearning to study in the United States? And where do they go instead?

One reason their numbers have fallen is the racial bias Chinese applicants face in applying to the best American U.S. institutions, which most of them seek. This is quite blatant in the case of all of the ivy leagues in the U.S.

In the case of Harvard, the number of Chinese students enrolled would be double the current number if it were not for affirmative action that culls out Chinese students based on their race. In 2018, the students sued Harvard, which spent $40 million to counter the suit and won with the help of luminaries such as Janet Yellen, former head of the Federal Reserve and current Secretary of the Treasury.

Incidentally, President Trump supported the students. In a more recent case of students suing Yale for the same admissions prejudice, President Biden’s Department of Justice blocked the case from being heard.

Much has been said and written about this, including a 250-plus page book just published by Kenny Xu entitled An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy.

Xu details why Asian students, especially Chinese students, face such racism. It has its origins in anti-Semitism earlier practiced in American universities, Xu says. It hinges now on the Chinese students’ motivation to excel and their belief in American meritocracy, which is no longer fancied by the political left that rules in U.S. academe.

While all Asians feel the bigotry, it is much stronger toward Chinese because they are the biggest segment of foreign students and owing to especially bad U.S.-China relations and China’s challenge to America’s prominence in the world.

The second reason for the drop off in Chinese students applying to attend colleges or universities in America is the perception, supported by the news almost daily plus crime statistics that show that living in American cities is not safe.

In the last 18 months the increase in the crime rate has been shocking to most Americans, especially crimes that are serious, such as murder. Many call it a crisis and many feel fear daily. This applies especially to Asians that have recently become all too often victims of racist attacks.

Indeed, the number of crimes against Asians has skyrocketed. In 2021, CBS News reported a 115 percent rise in Los Angles. Overall, in 2021 it spiked a whopping 457 percent. In early 2022 it increased again—several fold.

Asians complained, citing the defund the police decisions as a major cause. Also, jealousy of the model minorities in America. Local authorities in the cities where anti-Asian violence is most acute did not listen and did not act.

The third reason is the Biden administration’s view of China as America’s existential enemy and its efforts to contain China. President Trump criticised China for its trade surplus with America that caused a loss of jobs among his constituents and for the coronavirus. President Biden copied Trump but has also made the feud personal, calling China’s President Xi a thug without a democratic bone in his body. He has likewise broadened the scope of demonising China and has tried to construct various alliances to halt China’s rise.

The Western media has joined to vilify China on almost every issue possible: China wrecking the U.S.-built liberal world (which Richard Haass, president of the Council on World Affairs says is dying anyway and Henry Kissinger agrees), President Xi bidding for a third term in office (which Chinese patently do not mind), China’s warmongerism (though former President Carter says this term applies to the United States while China has not been involved in a war for more than 40 years).

The Biden administration and the Western media working in tandem are a powerful anti-China hate team. The American public is thus influenced to dislike China, 73 percent of them according to the latest polls. This is unprecedented and not unnoticed in China especially among parents who think of sending a son or daughter to the United States to study.

Many Chinese parents also recall the days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution when the government forced everyone how and what to think and punished rightist with shaming, cancelling, job loss, and even killing. They shudder when remembering those days and identify America’s wokeness, critical race theory and generally the ideology of the left in American universities with Mao’s horrors.

In counterpoint… Ignored in the milieu of American maligning China are China’s good deeds: getting an estimated 800 million people off poverty, making the UN project devoted to this succeed; extending aid and investments to Africa, causing it to be a leading continent in economic growth for the first time ever; giving the world advances in artificial intelligence quantum computers, robotics, and more—that have improved the human condition almost everywhere.

Anyway. What will China’s students do? They certainly do not plan to stay at home. In fact, more will go abroad in the coming year than ever.

They seek good colleges and universities, in particular in English-speaking countries where they will learn the language of business, science, technology, and more. Plus, many of them realise knowing English and Chinese both they can speak to half of the people in the world, and this is as close to knowing an international language one can get. And that is a gift in a globalised world.

They also feel their endeavours are helping China rise and end its hundred years of humiliation after the Opium War and its dark days of imperialism and colonialism. They are heartened by China’s recent accomplishments.

They will be looking especially at schools in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Singapore. Those countries can benefit immensely from having outstanding foreign students, and also from their money.


John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor (emeritus) of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty-five books on Asia and US Asian policy.

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