The educational exchange between the U.S. and China has, for the last few decades, served as a pillar of diplomacy and mutual understanding between the two countries. Prior to 2020, 35% of the over 1 million international students in the U.S. were from China. On the flip side, there were nearly 12,000 American students reportedly living and studying in China during the 2018/2019 school year. Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic drastically changed this cornerstone of U.S.-China diplomacy, but is there still hope for a recovery?
This fall China reopened its borders to foreign students for the first time in over two years. Students with valid student visas from the U.S., India, or Japan were able to return this August, just in time for the new school year. While this is a hopeful sign of progress between the two countries, covid-19 measures are still being enforced in China under the zero-covid policy, and borders remain tightly restricted, with fewer flights and a mandatory quarantine period after entering the country.
For Chinese students wishing to come to the U.S. to study, access to the border may be a bit simpler, but new challenges have presented themselves over the last two years. Along with the pandemic came a wave of anti-Asian hate and negative sentiment towards Chinese Americans, which greatly impacted Asians living in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Data from these cities showed a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes from 2020 to 2021, and in turn, there has been a 50% decline in student visas issued to Chinese students coming to study in the U.S. Not only has this had a profound impact on the local student communities, but it has also greatly affected American educational institutions as well, with 28% of annual revenue traditionally coming from international student's tuition fees.
Politics have also played a major role in changing how the Chinese public views the United States. A Chinese public opinion survey in 2021 found that 33% of respondents reported their views of the U.S. were “very unfavorable”, with another 29% viewing it as “unfavorable.” This data highlights why student exchange between the U.S. and China is so important, with Bloomberg finding that a Chinese person’s perception of America is significantly better when they have studied abroad or traveled to the U.S., and they understand the role the media plays in the bilateral relationship. Despite these concerns, Chinese students still make up a far majority of international students coming to study in the U.S., over double that of India, the next largest country.
The impact of the last two years has sparked important conversations about global access to education. Removing the financial barrier of moving to a new country, educational institutions had to reinvent how they deliver their education to international students who can no longer travel to university.
Where students decided to spend their 2019 winter break dictated what the rest of their academic career was going to look like. Students who stayed in the U.S. during the break worried they would not be able to return home for months, even years, while students who had returned home to China worried they would lose their college credits and have to halt their studies at their American university. While some schools tried their best to accommodate students, with some implementing a pass-fail system or partnering with Chinese universities to offer classes more locally, a majority of students had to rely on their courses going virtual. Many Chinese students have shared their challenges and mental health struggles during the first few months of the pandemic and expressed that even after campuses began to open, some students felt hesitant to attend class in person.
As the world slowly begins to emerge from the restrictions and lockdowns of the pandemic, student exchange between the U.S. and China is being threatened yet again by increasing political tensions between Beijing and Washington. But instead of letting opportunities for students be halted due to tensions, some experts say they should be used as an opportunity to strengthen ties. “People-to-people exchange may seem banal, but it has already proved vitally important to China-U.S. relations,” says author Diana Fu in The New York Times. Fu explains how it was people-to-people exchanges through Ping Pong Diplomacy that first paved the way for the U.S. and China to form a relationship back in 1971, and hence recommends that Washington continue to put engaging with China’s youth at the forefront of its diplomatic strategy.
There are several universities working to bridge the gap and give more opportunities for student exchange between the U.S. and China. One such school is New York University, which became the first Sino-US university in China after opening its Shanghai campus. 2022 graduates from Shanghai New York University said attending the university in Shanghai gave them the opportunity to experience Chinese culture in a new way, while interacting with a wide array of international students. Faculty, like NYU Shanghai’s Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman, are able to provide their support to international students and share their own personal experiences of discovering China as an outsider for the first time.
Experts anticipate that international student exchanges will bounce back fully in the near future, and many Chinese students still believe that studying in the U.S. brings a world of opportunities after graduation. "NYU Shanghai taught me how to be resilient in the face of challenges," said Sam Ong, an international student from Singapore. "I don't know where life will take me, but one of the biggest things I've learned is to really just trust the process."