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Society & Culture

Putting the Pinch on Chinese Students

Jun 24, 2020
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, CICIR

On May 29, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending entry of students or researchers from the People’s Republic of China “who are or have been associated with” the People’s Liberation Army to study as postgraduate students or to conduct research as postdoctoral researchers in the United States.

This is the latest move by President Donald Trump to restrict the entry of Chinese students into the U.S. for exchanges, and also the latest step in an ongoing effort, since Trump entered office, to restrict cultural exchanges between China and America.

The Trump administration’s above-mentioned initiative is based on two main considerations:

First, from a national security perspective, given the competition between China and the United States, it is intended to prevent leaks of R&D secrets which could undermine U.S. technological superiority. In the National Security Strategy released in December 2017, the Trump administration said it would restrict visas to prevent intellectual property theft by foreigners who travel to the U.S. to study STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.

In 2018, the U.S. State Department shortened the visa validity period for some Chinese STEM majors. According to the Trump administration, allowing Chinese students to study in the U.S. helps modernize China’s military and thus poses a threat to the long-term economic vitality of the United States and to the safety and security of the American people.

In addition, the U.S. has made great efforts to hinder the normal academic activities of Chinese students and scholars in the country. All this has seriously undermined long-standing and extensive China-U.S. cultural exchanges.

Second, to promote the decoupling of China and the United States, the initiative is very much targeted at cultural exchanges. Since 2018, decoupling has gradually become an important element of the Trump administration’s China policy. In three key areas — trade, sci-tech and culture — the United States has more initiatives to promote decoupling with China than in any other area. Whether the Trump administration is restricting Chinese student visas, suppressing Confucius Institutes or smearing China’s normal cultural exchanges with the U.S. with Cold War concepts such as “sharp power,” it is evident that the administration is eager to limit, or even cut off, interaction between China and the United States at the social level.

Policy is clearly being influenced by extreme anti-China elements in the United States, with the conservative anti-China wing of the Republican Party an important driving force behind the restrictions on cultural exchanges.

Anti-China members of Congress, such as Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and Chris Smith, have proposed restricting cultural exchanges and created a “Chinese threat” atmosphere in the United States. Cotton and others recently introduced the Secure Campus Act, which envisions a prohibition on Chinese citizens studying STEM-related subjects in the U.S.

In the long run, such policy designs are not sustainable. Extreme measures to restrict cultural exchanges are clearly against the interests of both China and the United States. These measures have already had a negative impact on American society’s view of China, and have also greatly exacerbated China’s concerns about U.S. policy.

Against the backdrop of major changes in China-U.S. relations in recent years, the stabilizing role played by cultural exchanges has become even more critical. U.S. initiatives may mean that these stabilizers are at great risk of failing to function.

The White House recently released a policy document — the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China — which states that the United States will not seek to dissociate itself from the Chinese people. This shows that the Trump administration is well aware that cultural exchanges are the ultimate guarantee of good bilateral relations. However, its series of extreme measures are significantly undermining the policy design of so-called healthy competition with China. This paradox of the Trump administration’s policies toward China will eventually be detrimental to the United States’ own interests.

Under the continuous influence of the Trump administration’s extreme measures, China-U.S. cultural exchanges have been significantly impacted, yet they have also shown great resilience. According to a report released by the Institute of International Education, in November 2019 China was the largest source of international students in the United States for the 10th consecutive year, and the total number of Chinese students in the U.S. in the 2018-19 academic year exceeded 360,000, an increase of 1.7 percent over the previous year.

In addition, quite a few U.S. institutions of higher learning and research do not agree with Trump’s policies, believing that they artificially block scientific and technological exchanges and will not promote U.S. technological innovation and competitiveness.

All this indicates that the long-term, broad-based convergence of interests from cultural exchanges between China and the United States will fundamentally correct the policies of the Trump administration and make sustaining those policies difficult in the long term.

Cultural exchanges are the foundation of China-U.S. relations and are important for enhancing mutual understanding between the two peoples and promoting the stable development of bilateral relations in the long term. The increasingly competitive nature of China-U.S. relations has made it all the more necessary to have strong and resilient cultural interaction to ensure healthy competition. 

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