Language : English 简体 繁體
Society & Culture

Why Sino-American Education Exchanges Matter, and How to Revive Them.

Mar 22, 2024
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Hailing from Nanping, Guangzhou (modern-day Zhuhai), Yung Wing enrolled in literary societies, joined a fraternity, and left an imprint on the long – and may it continue – history of Sino-American educational exchanges. He was the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university, Yale College, in 1854. 

Sponsored by Samuel Robbins Brown, an American missionary, Yung returned to China to serve as an interpreter, diplomat, and go-between interlocutor navigating the uneasy relations between the two sides of the Pacific. He made a compelling case to the Qing government that young Chinese students ought to be given the chance to learn about science and engineering from the U.S.. 

Naturalized as an American citizen in October 1852, Yung found his status revoked by the 1870 Naturalization Act. In many ways, his experience is mirrored by the lives of the many Chinese students and academics in America today – who find themselves increasingly beleaguered by hostile and unwarranted questioning over their loyalty. 

Some say history repeats or rhymes. Others say we do not learn from our history. 

In 1978, China began the process of Reform and Opening Up, which enabled the country to connect with the developed economies of the West, and the world beyond. The visionary then-leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, declared that “to send students abroad to study is also a concrete step [of modernisation]”. Since the 1970s, at least 3 million Chinese students have studied in the U.S., with many returning to their country as ‘haiguis’ (returnees). 

In return, Mainland China also opened its doors to foreign scholars, academics, and students. Students from all over the world would travel to cities in the mainland to learn Chinese, and about the politics and culture of the country. As recently as 2019, there were over 11,000 American students in the mainland, a mere fraction of the sizeable 370,000 Chinese students in the U.S.. 

170 years on from Yung’s graduation, Sino-American education exchanges have once again reached a critical crossroads. The COVID-19 pandemic and ornate travel restrictions, growing skepticism towards the presence of foreigners, hyperbolic narratives and opacity in communications have precipitated a rapid decline in interest amongst American students in studying on the mainland. 

On the other side of the Pacific, escalating geopolitical tensions, racist attacks and hate crimes, and the incipient yet alarming targeting of Chinese academics and researchers during the Trump era, have similarly put Chinese students off applying for the U.S.. Instead, many have opted for alternatives such as the UK, Canada, and Singapore – though as many would attest, there is no way to recreate the American experience elsewhere. 

As Yingyi Ma noted in a Brookings commentary last year, the number of Tsinghua graduates who opt to study in the U.S. has plummeted – from 11% in 2018, to only 3% in 2021. Between 2018 and 2023, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. decreased by 83,000 - over 22%. In the 2021-22 school year, there were only 211 American students in mainland China. 

It doesn’t take much expertise in education or Sino-American relations for one to understand how dire the situation is today. The fewer interactions between Chinese and American youths, the likelier it would be that these two communities would grow further and further apart over time. The less engagement and dialogue there is between respectful colleagues and classmates, the likelier it is that the bilateral relationship would come to be defined by buffoons, populists, nationalists, bent on setting up China and the U.S. as diametrical opposites. 

President Xi Jinping has declared that China is ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to study in China over 5 years. At Two Sessions this year, renowned scholar and CPPCC delegate Jia Qingguo advocated lifting the “excessive restrictions on scholars and retired officials traveling abroad”, to allow for more direct interactions between them and their overseas counterparts. Thinktank founder Wang Huiyao has called for “restoring youth exchanges” to “build future bridges between China and the U.S.” 

These are all welcoming and promising signs. Yet in order to revitalise academic exchanges, three substantive steps must be undertaken. 

Firstly, both Beijing and Washington alike should seek to remove barriers and encourage candid exchanges and academic dialogues. Offering of more flights into China, reducing the hurdles involved in securing visas, expanding the range and coverage of scholarships, and reassuring foreign exchange students of their ability to participate in free and open discussions on campuses, would be critical low-hanging fruits that the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Education in China can jointly advance.  

Reciprocally, the U.S. government should seriously consider the ‘Level 3’ designation it has placed Mainland China under, as well as carefully establishing a judicious balance between mitigating national security risks, and ensuring that ethnic Chinese scholars and students do not feel unduly targeted. President Joe Biden’s termination of the widely criticised China Initiative, as well as his affirmation of people-to-people and academic exchanges at San Francisco last year, should be lauded for commonsense pragmatism. 

Going forward, the State Department should restore the Fulbright Program for Mainland Chinese applicants – which has historically provided a critical window of embedded learning and intercultural exchange between promising, aspirational researchers in China and the U.S..  

Secondly, both Chinese and American universities should set clear expectations and be firmly committed to the overarching principle of respectful pluralism in difference. 

Educators of both countries should ensure that their students do not travel with the expectation that their worldviews will go unchallenged.  Education is meant to provoke strong feelings, to drive organic growth through reflection and critical debate, and to open up one’s worldviews to the plurality of all possibilities. American students should travel to China with an open mind about the way the country governs and runs its affairs, just as Chinese students should be prepared to recognise the merits – as well as flaws – in American democracy. 

Seeking truth from facts is not just a political motto. It is also a timely reminder that pragmatism – not ideological zealotry or acceptance of superficial propaganda – is pivotal in building goodwill, fostering trust, and eventually resolving misunderstandings. In China, prestigious joint education ventures, such as the Schwarzman Program, NYU-Shanghai, and Duke-Kunshan campuses, are uniquely well-placed in virtue of their relatively liberal standards of discussion, international faculty, and robust intellectual community. It would be in Beijing’s interest to allow for more flexibility, creativity, and spontaneity in the discussions taking place in these spaces. Similarly, American students should be equipped with the knowledge and confidence to make the most of these programmes and their time in China. 

Thirdly, Sino-American education exchanges can and should take place across the world. There is no reason to think that mainland China and the U.S. should be the exclusive sites where academics and students meet and collaborate. As a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong is home to 8 public-funded and 3 self-funded universities. A number of these 11 universities are renowned worldwide for their research output and teaching excellence. Beijing should leverage Hong Kong’s uniqueness under ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ and invite more American visitors – including those who lack a robust understanding of China – to come to the city and see for themselves. 

Outside China, Southeast Asian cities such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta could provide more neutral spaces and platforms for prospective synergy and partnerships between homegrown scholars from the region, and their Chinese and American counterparts. Rather than viewing ASEAN as merely an arena where Sino-American competition plays out, all parties would benefit from positioning the region as a neutral buffer zone for experimentation. 

The European Union and the UK, steeped in history and flourishing cultures, can again serve as neutral conduits for good-faith exchanges. Neither China nor America should seek to alter the rules of engagement in these spaces. Exposure to new, different, and challenging ideas is part and parcel of growing up – not only for young students and scholars, but also for the two peoples of China and the U.S. at large. It’s not too late to change things – at the very least, we must try. 

You might also like
Back to Top