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Society & Culture

US and China: Scholars Racing for The Exits

May 08 , 2019

Speaking out about the recent visa crackdown on Chinese scholarly visits to the US, Cornell-trained professor Jia Qingguo from Peking University noted that the US move reflected both anxiety and lack of confidence. Although he was addressing the trumped-up fear that Chinese students in the US are a fifth-column influence, stealing secrets that the US security establishment, for all its prowess, is apparently incapable of keeping secret, his point about American loss of nerve applies on a more general level as well. 

The US is indeed brimming with anxiety and a crisis of confidence. 

How else to explain the hysteria of the wealthy, paranoid and pampered President Trump who campaigns incessantly to “build that wall” and “lock ‘em up.” To think that the man with access to the world’s most daunting nuclear arsenal finds the time to obsess about impenetrable border walls and deploying military force to stop a trickle of rag-tag, empty-handed refugees from crossing the border is crazy. US immigration and refugee processing may indeed need an administrative overhaul, but it is hardly time to cry wolf and call in the troops. 

The problem is, if the same sickly mix of anxiety and failed confidence is applied to bigger issues, such educational exchange, or domination of Pacific sea lanes, or establishing nuclear deterrent, a cascade of bad choices and knee-jerk reactions could actually lead to a real war with bad consequences of epic proportions. Unthinkable though it might be to more rational minds, there are trigger-happy advisors in the president’s circle keen on provoking a hot conflict with China. On the domestic side, Trump’s reprehensibly mean-spirited advisor Stephen Miller has called for cancelling all Chinese student visas to the US, though thankfully calmer, kinder voices have prevailed, including that of US Ambassador to Beijing, Terry Branstad. 

China specialist David Shambaugh at George Washington University echoed Jia Qingguo’s above-noted concerns saying “when China and the US wage a visa war against each other’s scholars, nobody wins.” Shambaugh drives home the point that tit-for-tat retaliation is harmful, though he unhelpfully squarely blames China for starting it. Be that as it may, both sides need more restraint and mutual understanding, not less, in these contentious times, if only for better informed conflict management. 

Cornell University was a popular destination for Chinese scholars in the early 20th century, including the erudite Hu Shi, and it trained many top scientists and scholars from China until 1949. Chinese enrollment plummeted during the Cold War, when only a handful of scholars could get the necessary travel papers from both sides, such as the well-connected writer Jack Chen. Since the 1980's, when the flow of mainland scholars to the US resumed full-throttle after a thirty-year hiatus in the wake of the Chinese revolution, the number of Chinese students on campus has increased exponentially, and now constitutes the largest group of foreign students, numbering over 2,100 across Cornell’s various schools and colleges.  

While some petty complaints have arisen about assimilation, it’s perfectly in keeping with the university’s egalitarian charter and the realities of today’s cosmopolitan world that Chinese should be heard on every corner of campus. Chinese has been taught on campus for well over a century and plenty of other languages can be heard as well. What’s more, Ithaca landlords, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, not to mention cash-strapped divisions of the university itself, are grateful for the patronage. 

As someone who first studied Chinese at Cornell and went on to enjoy foreign student life in China, I can see many interesting parallels between the somewhat insular community of Chinese students at Cornell and the often-insular world of American students in China. It takes an effort not to speak one’s own language and seek the familiarity of one’s own kind, but getting out of one's comfort zone is what cross-cultural exchange is all about. 

There is a great imbalance, though, and there has been from the start, between the number of Americans studying in China and vice-versa. Various efforts have been made to redress this gap, and again, Cornell University offers an interesting example to consider. 

In Beijing in 2005, I attended the inauguration of Cornell’s ambitious China exchange program known as CAPS, held in the Great Hall of the People with guests including George Bush Sr. and Robert Gates. Developed with the support of Cornell alumni and benefactor Michael Zaks, and promoted by university president Hunter Rawlings, the bi-cultural bridge-building program did not live up to its initial promise. Factors in its stagnant growth included a disregard for China on the part subsequent university presidents, poor program management both in Ithaca and Beijing, and a sea change in desired destinations for young Americans.  

Interest in visiting China arguably peaked with the 2008 Olympics and has been going downhill since due to shifting flavor-of-the-month perceptions, a rise in political tension and the old bug-bear, pollution. The number of Cornell students participating in the special China-focused major has dropped to as low as five, though there will be nine graduates in this year’s class. 

Another Cornell exchange program, jointly run by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and Renmin University, was scrapped last year due to concerns about the lack of academic freedom in China. It’s not the end of Cornell’s engagement with China, but it does not bode well for the future. 

Although there are legitimate concerns about free inquiry at stake, and a university is within its rights to disengage at will, the US should brace itself for the possibility that it, too, will be judged by its actions, and these actions may cause others to withdraw from educational exchange with the US. 

The give-and-take of US-China educational exchange mirrors the larger relationship in all its strength, asymmetry and fragility. If Chinese students no longer come, either due to outright visa denial or diminishment of interest due to perceptions about the growing unattractiveness of the US as a place to study, even major universities will be rocked to the core, scientific research will suffer and collegetown shops will be shuttered left and right. 

The toxic paranoia of the Trump White House is a stark reminder that over-reacting to something can make things turn out worse than the imperfect situation that is being reacted to in the first place. 

This frightening dynamic is tragically evident in the US gonzo response to terrorism, which to date has led to several undeclared wars, hundreds of thousands of dead, over a trillion dollars in expenditure, the rise of the security state and the concomitant rollback on privacy and civil rights. 

Racing for the exit in bilateral exchange programs puts the future of democracy at risk; it is like risking the baby for the bathwater. It threatens to take out of circulation the trust and goodwill that have helped both sides prosper and keep the peace in one of the most remarkable bilateral relationships in history.

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