Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Brian Y. S. Wong
by Brian Y. S. Wong

US-China cold war: How Chinese overseas students are getting caught in the crossfire

  • US hostility is dashing the hopes of many ordinary Chinese seeking a more liberal life, even as jingoistic pressure grows on them to not be seen as Chinese traitors and sell-outs
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently declared that the White House is contemplating further restrictions on Chinese students in the United States over the “ coming weeks and months”.

It is fair and square to restrict the entry of individuals who could pose risks to national security – your average turncoat, spy or criminal who violates laws and jeopardises American interests. After all, any reasonable government ought not to put up with foreign agents and interests bent on sabotaging law and order.

Yet as tensions mount, many students from China studying in the West have found themselves caught in the crossfire between a land that they call home, and a land that they want to make home.

The latest restrictions touted by senior American officials ominously foreshadow a marked official pivot away from sensible evidence-informed precautions, into the dangerous terrain of impetuous policymaking and calculating politicking.

From the suspension of joint scholarship programmes by universities to the dog-whistling rhetoric portraying Chinese students as homogenous unthinking extensions of the Chinese state, the West has become a precipitously hostile place for hundreds of thousands of overseas Chinese students.


US colleges face US$15 billion hit as Chinese students stay away amid coronavirus pandemic

US colleges face US$15 billion hit as Chinese students stay away amid coronavirus pandemic
Much as President Donald Trump’s “ Muslim ban” was a chilling reminder that the rights of entry and freedoms of movement for people of colour are never secure, even in the Land of the Free, the latest antics of the Trump administration are immoral, irresponsible, and throw under the bus individuals who are neither capable of nor responsible for transforming their governments.

For many of those who opt to travel vast distances to unfamiliar college campuses, the West offers an education that they could seldom access back home – from a world-class faculty and leading archives and libraries, to vibrant academic communities that facilitate open-minded and unrestrained discourse.

Access to an English-language education and pristine credentials are viewed as a ticket for many into ecosystems and workplaces otherwise out of reach. As China’s middle class expands, an elite Western education is no longer available only to those in its upper echelons, but also to thousands of aspiring youths seeking a living outside the country.

A view of the campus of Harvard University on July 8, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For many Chinese students, the West offers an education that they could seldom access back home. Photo: Getty Images / AFP
Trump’s isolationist backsliding over the past four years has dashed the dreams of many of these hopefuls. Those with entrenched endowments are not the ones who have lost out the most; after all, there is the family business, and connections, to fall back on.
It is instead the cherubic, hopeful engineer from Wuxi, the eager global business graduate from Chengdu, or the Shanghai teenager whose family saved up for a decade to send her overseas who have found themselves in the crossfire, with their scholarships rescinded, visas revoked and hopes for a better future crushed under a brewing cold war.

When we write of “Chinese students”, it is easy to write them off as a monolithic bloc, nurtured and groomed through the biased lenses of officially sanctioned curriculum. Yet such tropes unduly deprive them of their agency and reflect a rather archaic understanding of where China stands today.

US-China tensions are clouding how Americans and Chinese see each other

Indubitably, Chinese students have much to learn – but they also have much to give. From shedding insights into the national psyche of a 1.4 billion-strong country, to offering a glimpse of the politics and civil society across the rural areas and flourishing city centres, to their expertise and talents across sectors where human capital is sorely needed by the West – it is to its detriment that the US opts to shut itself off from those who could play a vital role in its post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

Shutting these students out of the US would do little for bilateral cultural exchange. To many Chinese students, studying in America had long offered invaluable opportunities to appreciate and grapple first-hand with ideals long exonerated in China, from democracy to liberalism, from progressive egalitarianism to a highly engaged civil society. Yet much has changed in recent years under the Trump administration, which has taken pleasure in construing Chinese students and migrants as enemies of American values.

White House officials pay lip service to distinguishing between the party and the public but such distinctions have clearly not materially prevented the blurring of lines between well-grounded critiques of the government, and unfounded tropes about its people.


Banning 92 million Communist Party members from America ‘ridiculous’, Beijing says

Banning 92 million Communist Party members from America ‘ridiculous’, Beijing says
Indeed, as the anti-Chinese backlash surges in the aftermath of the pandemic, more Chinese students have sought and found solace in the anti-West rhetoric advocated vociferously by their more jingoistic compatriots – much to the joy of those who see the West as China’s existential enemy.

None of this is to say that Trump’s administration is solely to blame. The growing animosity towards the US is palpable in China, and makes difficult the lives of those who strive to facilitate better relations and entente between the two countries. Chinese students are told that they must take clear sides – either they are with the West, or they are with China. Liberal students who seek to fuse Western ideals with their political discourse are shunned as traitors and sell-outs to the enemy in the cold war.

What cannot be clearer here, though, is that the Trump administration’s Manichean stance towards Chinese students plays right into the hands of hawks from both sides, transforming Chinese students into the first casualties of the impending cold war. This is an outcome that both Beijing and Washington have the moral imperative to avoid – yet it remains unclear if either party would apply the brakes before it is too late.

Brian YS Wong is an MPhil (political theory) candidate at Wolfson College, Oxford, and current Rhodes Scholar-elect for Hong Kong in 2020