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Chinese graduates throw their mortar boards into the air at Columbia University, in New York. Picture: Xinhua

How Chinese overseas students are learning harsh life lessons

From conflicting ideologies to outright racism, for many youngsters from China, the reality of university life abroad is far from what was expected

When 22-year-old Langou Lian looks back at her decision to study in the United States, one influence sticks out: Disney Channel movie High School Musical.

“I hated Chinese education,” Lian says, recalling the high-pressure, test-centred schooling in her native Sichuan province. High School Musical presented an alternative: a carefree atmosphere where even adolescent students are independent, free to speak their mind and have a palette of social activities to choose from.

But after she arrived in the US, that rosy image became complicated. 

“The one word that describes my impression of America before coming is ‘freedom’,” says Lian, who currently studies at the University of California, Irvine. “[But] after I studied here for a while, I started to kind of understand American society. My impression went from good to bad.”

And that had a knock-on effect, on her as it had on others. “A lot of [Chinese] students become more patriotic,” Lian says.

Chinese graduates of Columbia University attend the commencement ceremony, in 2015. Picture: Xinhua

Her enchantment and later disillusionment isn’t uncommon for students who study abroad, but it’s never been more consequential. Lian is one of 350,000 mainland Chinese students now studying in American colleges – more than five times the number of just a decade ago. Such rapid growth has simultaneously unfolded in Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, and it comes at a time when China’s Communist Party sees itself in an ideological war with the West for the hearts and minds of its youth.

Some Western academics, politicians and media commentators believe Beijing may be winning that war when it comes to its overseas students – that rather than bringing Chinese youth towards a more politically liberal outlook, study in the West may instead be arousing greater nationalism and disdain for host countries, and in the process, be ushering in the Communist Party’s eyes, ears and hostile approach to free speech onto Western campuses.

Interviews with Chinese students studying abroad and academics who research their attitudes present a complex picture – one in which students enter and leave with diverse views and identities that often defy clear loyalties or ideological labels. But nevertheless, many feel caught in the geopolitical crossfire – forced to choose a side or keep their heads down.

Last February, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) announced on Facebook that the Dalai Lama would give a commencement speech later in the year. The Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, widely respected internationally, has been deemed by Chinese leaders “a wolf in monk’s robes” who stirs up ethnic tension in order to split China.

UCSD’s Facebook page was immediately flooded with comments from Chinese students echoing that sentiment, some saying the school’s decision was tantamount to inviting Osama Bin Laden. The university’s chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) threatened “tough measures to resolutely resist the college’s unreasonable behaviour” and said that it had been in touch with the Chinese consulate about the matter.
The Dalai Lama attends a graduation ceremony at the University of California, San Diego, on June 17, 2017. Picture: AFP

New York Times report three months later highlighted connections between the 150-odd CSSA chapters around the world and Chinese consulates, suggesting that Chinese authorities may play a role in such student backlashes. The report asserted that, in addition to the tuition dollars and international diversity that Chinese students bring to Western universities, “those students often bring to campus something else from home: the watchful eyes and occasionally heavy hand of the Chinese government”.

Days before the UCSD commencement speech, several CSSA members put up posters and distributed flyers on campus to “share a different perspective” on the Dalai Lama. They were confronted by American students who called them “brainwashed”, to which one Chinese student retorted, “What you hear in America is subjective as well.”

Regardless of what role, if any, Chinese consular officials played in the backlash, most of the anger was undoubtedly genuine. Han Shihao, a UCSD international politics graduate student from Shenzhen not affiliated with the CSSA, wrote an opinion piece on a student blog calling the Dalai Lama a “chess piece”. He claimed the invitation was an affront to the 3,600 Chinese students on campus that “displayed ignorance of the voice from a minority group”.

When interviewed, Han concedes that the Communist Party’s narrative about the Dalai Lama is “propaganda” that isn’t always true, but what irked him to write the article was what he saw as hypocritical criticism of China’s Tibet policies by American peers. 

“They apply their standards of liberty, human rights and democracy to all these circumstances despite the fact that the US itself has done many of these kinds of things in the past,” he says, citing the annexation of Hawaii, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1983 invasion of Grenada. “Invasion by America is considered an act of preserving human rights and democracy. But if it’s something China did, it’s not. You can’t just apply this double standard.”
A group of Cuban counter-revolutionaries after their capture during the CIA-invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Cuba. Picture: AFP

Han says that since coming to the US, he has been disappointed by American uninterest in understanding, or even listening to, views like these. Growing up in China, he explains, despite government propaganda, he came to see the US as a beacon of freedom, liberalism and open-mindedness. “But after a lot of people come here, they realise it’s not like that,” he says. “If you’re Chinese, when people talk about politics and democracy, you’ll always be targeted [...] They try to put us under one very radical label, like, ‘Chinese people are lovers of dictatorships,’ things like that. At times, it’s very aggressive.”

While many of his views do align with those of the Communist Party, Han is quick to point out that there are plenty of points on which they diverge. “I still believe that the Communist Party, even with all the bad things it’s done in the past, can give China a more prosperous future,” he says. “But at the same time, I do think that [it] should allow more – like, it should stop internet censorship, or at least lessen it.”

And he says that most of his Chinese classmates have complicated views toward their country’s policies and can be quite critical of their government, even if they don’t advocate its overthrow. This makes it especially irritating when American classmates dismiss them as “brainwashed” for not opposing one-party rule. 

“If we’re all brainwashed, why would we come to the United States?” he asks. “We want to learn about how things work here. On the contrary, many Americans have never been to China, never read anything serious about China and just indulge in propaganda themselves.”

Henry Chiu Hail, an American PhD candidate in sociology at UC Irvine, recalls befriending a Chinese classmate a decade ago, while studying for his masters. “I thought I would shock her with American democracy, and show her all this stuff she never knew about her own country,” Hail says. “I think a lot of Americans get off on that idea: that they’re going to liberate the minds of overseas students.”

Chinese students often find themselves in situations where they must find a way to reconcile the demands of their Chinese identity with their identities as friends and colleagues of American people
Henry Chiu Hail, PhD candidate in sociology at University of California, Irvine

As he began sending her materials critical of China’s government and the bloody Beijing crackdown of 1989, he found that her interest quickly turned to defensiveness and even charges that Americans are anti-China. The experience piqued his curiosity, leading him to conduct a qualitative study in which he interviewed 18 Chinese students at the University of Hawaii about past political discussions with Americans. “On some level, every single one of them was able to relate to this idea that Americans are biased or ignorant about China,” he says.

In many ways, interactions like these play into the Communist Party’s patriotic education campaign, which Chinese students are subjected to growing up. Instituted in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen uprising, the curriculum began emphasising Chinese nationalism and the country’s 5,000 years of greatness that were interrupted by imperialistic atrocities inflicted by the West and Japan during a “century of humiliation” (1839-1949).

Shanghai’s Pudong district can be seen as a symbol of China’s economic success. Picture: Reuters
The Communist Party credits itself with ending this humiliation and lifting China back into a position of strength and respect in the world, but notes that former imperialists still desire to undermine that rise. This narrative also asserts that China’s economic success under one-party rule shows that Western-style democracy is unsuitable for the country. Those who say otherwise are arrogant, don’t understand China or have ulterior motives. One question from a graduate-school entrance exam, for instance, juxtaposes  the 2008 global financial crisis with American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 “End of History” essay, which claimed Western liberal democracy to be the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution. “However, 20 years of history has shown us that history didn’t end,” the test asserts. “What ended was the Western sense of superiority.”

Wang Zilong was 18 years old when, in 2009, he went to study at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Coming of age in urban Shanghai, he had watched skyscrapers swiftly climb into the clouds and lives steadily improve. But when he began speaking with American classmates, he was blindsided by their negative impressions of his country. 

“What really pushed my buttons was the human rights issue,” Wang says. “Like Tibet and all these topics where the West can get the moral high ground. And the way they talked to me was like saying, ‘I am personally superior to you.’”

Though he had to memorise and recite phrases related to these issues ad nauseam in school, he’d never really given them deep thought. But now, they were inextricably tied up with his identity. 

“In China, I never noticed I’m Chinese because everyone is Chinese,” he says. “But then, coming to the US, the first thing people ask is where you’re from, and then their interaction with you goes from that point on.”

Wang was mortified to learn that, for some of his peers, his identity included things like eating cats and dogs, and that he should answer for sociopolitical issues he hardly knew or cared about. When challenged on these issues, he often found himself resorting to propaganda phrases he didn’t necessarily believe in: “That’s our internal affair” and “The West always applies double standards.”

When we’re 18, we’re very self-conscious and pretty insecure about our self-identity anyway. I think the combination of dealing with national identity and personal insecurity is a pretty potent mix
Wang Zilong, Hampshire College alum 

Even as he gained a better grasp of these issues, he argued with classmates, even if deep down he agreed with them. “Maybe just 5 per cent of these conversations were rational dialogue, where we were trying to learn more and be open-minded,” Wang says. “Most of it was just knee-jerk reactions on both ends. When we’re 18, we’re very self-conscious and pretty insecure about our self-identity anyway. I think the combination of dealing with national identity and personal insecurity is a pretty potent mix.”

Hail recalls that during his interviews his study subjects would often criticise such things as China’s widespread corruption, only to backtrack and express guilt for betraying their country in front of an American. Many affirmed that they had frequently criticised the Chinese government when they lived in China. 

“While abroad, however, the concepts of ‘the people’ and ‘the government’ tended to blend together as national identity became more salient,” Hail writes. “Chinese students often find themselves in situations where they must find a way to reconcile the demands of their Chinese identity with their identities as friends and colleagues of American people.”

For all who end up with a stronger Chinese identity during that reconciliation, there are also those like Yang Shuping. Last May, the graduating University of Maryland senior was chosen to deliver a commencement speech. “When I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away,” she said in her eight-minute address. “The air was so sweet and fresh, and oddly luxurious [...] At the University of Maryland, I soon [felt] another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful – the fresh air of free speech.”

Yang Shuping delivers the speech at Maryland University, in the US, that would spark a backlash in China.

She described how growing up in China, she had to wear a face mask every time she went outside (a claim many residents of her hometown Kunming found unlikely). Upon coming to America, in addition to the fresh air, she was also pleasantly “shocked” by how freely things like the 1992 Rodney King beating by police in Los Angeles, and the subsequent riots, could be broadcast. “I have always had a burning desire to tell these kinds of stories, but I was convinced that only authorities own the narrative, only authorities could define the truth.”

Any Chinese citizen should be responsible for the remarks he or she makes
A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Yang received a standing ovation from those in attendance, but within a day, Yang learned that what might endear you to American peers can make you public enemy No 1 back home. Videos of her remarks went viral on Chinese social media. The University of Maryland’s CSSA quickly released its own video, expressing pride in China and calling Yang’s statements “deceptions and lies”. Chinese state media piled in with a raft of articles and commentaries condemning Yang. Some social media users called for a “human flesh search” to dig into her background – the supposed home address of her family was circulated in the comments sections of articles. Even the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs weighed in. “Any Chinese citizen should be responsible for the remarks he or she makes,” a spokesman said, adding that the Chinese government would support its overseas students “as long as they love their country deep down in their heart and stand ready to contribute to it”.

If the aim was to deter others from espousing views like Yang’s, it worked. Many students interviewed for this article say her vilification has influenced what they’re willing to say publicly. 

The day after delivering the speech, Yang posted an apology on Weibo. “I love my country and hometown and am proud of its prosperity,” she said. “I’m deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness.”

Young adults like Yang who develop an enthusiastic appreciation for Western societies (particularly in the political realm) are one of the Communist Party’s greatest fears, and some analysts say the Chinese state is going to greater and greater lengths to neutralise them.

In 2013, an internal Party communiqué instructed cadres to stop schools and media from discussing taboo topics that included Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, press freedom, historical nihilism and questioning whether China’s system is truly socialist. It is widely thought to be what precipitated an extensive campaign against “Western values”.

Over the past year, this campaign has zeroed in on domestic universities, with ideological inspections of teaching staff and the bolstering of political education. But the roughly 800,000 Chinese students who are studying in overseas universities not under the Party’s control present a blind spot, and authorities view them as a critical constituency – potentially even a security threat.

Some Party arms have tried to disincentivise studying abroad. Restrictions have tightened on international schools that prepare students for overseas study. Some students have reported trouble accessing foreign admissions websites through China’s censored internet. Meanwhile, state media provides a steady drumbeat of reasons not to study overseas (it’s hard to find a marriage partner; it no longer assures you employment; you can get kidnapped and murdered, and local authorities won’t care, etc).

End of an Era, a book by Carl Minzner. 
Minzner, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University School of Law, in New York, and author of the forthcoming book End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining its Rise, says that the ethos of the post-1979 reform period has been that China needs to learn from the outside in order to develop at home. But that page is now turning. 

“There are questions being raised at a very deep level within the bureaucracy about how valuable that stuff from outside is,” Minzner says. “This nativist turn is leading Beijing to steadily impose stronger curbs on influences viewed as ‘foreign’ – whether it be Christmas traditions or overseas academic publications.”

The Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, charged with managing relations with critical groups outside of the Party, has identified overseas students as one of 12 special targets for ideological guidance and promotion of Party policies. The organisation has said focusing on these students is important for “consolidating and expanding the Party’s popular base”. A 2016 Ministry of Education document similarly called for a network linking “the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad” in order to harness “patriotic energy” among overseas students.

As Chinese student numbers have grown internationally, so have warnings that this “patriotic energy” has indeed been activated to the detriment of academic freedom and Western higher education. Nowhere has the volume of these warnings been louder than in Australia, where students from mainland China now make up more than 6 per cent of the country’s total university enrolments (compared with 1.7 per cent in the US).

Last year, four incidents involving Chinese students in Australian universities gained national notoriety. One lecturer used a map showing China-claimed territory as belonging to India. Another referred to Taiwan as an independent country and was secretly recorded in a confrontation with Chinese students. A third posted a warning not to cheat, written in English and Chinese. And a fourth used a test question suggesting that Chinese officials are only truthful when “drunk or careless”. News of the incidents spread on social media, were picked up by Chinese state media and yielded fierce backlashes against the lecturers – three of whom issued apologies; the fourth was suspended by his university.

[Students] become kind of disenchanted with the notion of objectivity, freedom of expression, democratic values – all of the things they actually came to learn about in the first place. I think [it’s] really ironic
Wanning Sun, professor of media and communication studies at University of Technology Sydney 

The Australian newspaper reported of a “war being waged by Chinese international students against ‘politically incorrect’ lecturers in Australia”. Online news resource declared, “Australian educators are increasingly coming under attack from Chinese students, raising concerns their government’s influence is permeating our universities.” Conservative radio broadcaster Alan Jones gave perhaps the most pointed remarks. “Chinese students are bullying their Australian lecturers at our universities,” he tweeted. “Cancel their visas and send them all back to China today.”

But some Australian academics researching Chinese international students say the prevailing narrative is leaving a skewed picture. “Too often reports can be quite sensational, sometimes quite alarmist,” said Wanning Sun, a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Technology Sydney, in a recent podcast. “In the case of the PRC students, I would say the actions of a few hot-headed individuals are often represented as typical of the entire student cohort.”

Sun, who has been running focus groups with Chinese students in universities across Australia, said her subjects have a wide range of ideological outlooks, often strongly at odds with those involved in the four infamous incidents. But government and media narratives that have emerged about “Chinese students” in the country have left many feeling under siege. “They become kind of disenchanted with the notion of objectivity, freedom of expression, democratic values – all of the things they actually came to learn about in the first place,” Sun says. “I think [it’s] really ironic.”

Pro-Tibet protesters clash with Chinese supporters outside Parliament House during the Beijing 2008 Olympic torch relay through Canberra. Picture: AFP

The vast majority of Chinese students studying abroad never have contact with authorities from their country, but Chinese government operations on foreign campuses seeking to use and influence students do exist. The head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation warned last year – not naming China specifically – that Australia needs to be conscious of foreign influence in its universities, which affects the behaviour of lecturers and foreign students.

The scope of these operations is difficult to determine, but professors at universities around the world have recounted instances of students reporting back to higher officials on the activities of their classmates and lecturers, sometimes under duress. 

Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Programme, recalls having had students apply to be his research assistant, only later to discover that they were acting at the behest of Chinese consular officials. He also knows that his lectures, and what Chinese students say in them, have been monitored. “I’ve had students suddenly given warnings by Chinese officials about me or things they’ve said in class,” he says. “In one case, it happened within a few hours of it being said.”

Sally Sargeson, associate professor at Australian National University.
Sally Sargeson, an associate professor at Australian National University who teaches courses in Chinese politics, says Chinese students have expressed fears of this happening to them. “I had a student in tears in my office, saying that she dare not speak up in class,” Sargeson says. “Other students I know of have had parents in China contacted by public security, invited to come have tea, and told they need to keep their child in Australia in line.”

Essentially, CSSA branches are campus groups that organise social activities and practical assistance for students, and so are a natural attraction for many new arrivals transitioning to life abroad. Recently, though, they’ve come under scrutiny for some chapters’ murky ties to Chinese consulates and attempts to shut down activities critical of Communist Party interests. Last year, the CSSA and Chinese Embassy in London teamed up to try to block an event at England’s Durham University featuring Falun Gong-practising Chinese-Canadian beauty queen Anastasia Lin, who has been outspoken against the Communist Party. Later in the year, a student journalist at Australian National University reported that he was followed and intimidated by CSSA members while covering an “I love China 2.0” gala organised by the CSSA and funded by the Chinese Embassy in Australia.

Instances like these and the backlashes at UCSD and the University of Maryland have highlighted a sometimes blurry line between spontaneous student expressions of patriotic sentiment and overt intervention by Chinese authorities. And amid growing worries of covert Chinese government influence, some fear that the wider Chinese population is being lumped together with both, and further alienated in the process.

Fran Martin, associate professor in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne.
Fran Martin, an associate professor in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, has been conducting a five-year ethnographic study of 50 female Chinese students at universities in three Australian cities. She says that anxiety over Communist Party influence in Australia has collided with a racist backlash to the growing Chinese presence in the country, which has given many of her students the feeling of an “anti-China” atmosphere.

“I’m not denying that Beijing has a broader strategy for soft power, or indeed hard power, abroad,” Martin says. “It clearly does. But this whole idea that Chinese students are spies is really unhelpful, and I think it alienates this group in ways different from other international student groups [...] And they’re really aware of it.” 

The coexistence of racism and actual (if limited) Communist Party activity has aided Chinese officials in conflating the former with any scrutiny of the latter. In response to allegations of running covert operations in the country, the Chinese Embassy in Australia released a statement calling the charges “typical anti-China hysteria”, adding that Australian media have “unscrupulously vilified the Chinese students as well as the Chinese community in Australia with racial prejudice”.

I do think there’s a strong current of disappointment at the level of social exclusion many Chinese students experience over here. They find themselves excluded from a lot of aspects of local society that they would rather be part of
Fran Martin, associate professor in cultural studies at University of Melbourne

These political complications are converging with other sources of alienation for many Chinese students. Martin notes that only about 10 per cent of students in her research cohort have managed to form meaningful relationships with locals outside the Chinese community. One 2014 Australian government survey found that mainland Chinese students’ satisfaction with opportunities to interact with Australians is nearly 10 per cent lower than for other international student groups. 

“I do think there’s a strong current of disappointment at the level of social exclusion many Chinese students experience over here,” Martin says. “They find themselves excluded from a lot of aspects of local society that they would rather be part of.”

When Chinese students first began to go abroad in large numbers, in the 1980s, they were predominantly top-performing graduate students on government scholarships. Today, more than 90 per cent receive no tuition assistance, meaning their demographic make-up skews heavily towards the urban middle and upper classes, which have benefited most from China’s economic growth. This emerging demographic has been increasingly anxious for its children to escape the country’s stressful and highly regimented education system.

International students willing to pay for their tuition represent a welcome source of revenue for Western universities struggling with budget cuts, particularly since the global financial crisis. A 2016 California state audit, for instance, found that the University of California system had lowered admissions standards for out-of-state students (36 per cent of whom are from mainland China) for the purpose of collecting more tuition fees.

Many critics charge that this has yielded large sub-groups of Chinese overseas students who are linguistically and academically unprepared to succeed. “You’re admitting non-qualified students for financial reasons, so you impose a burden on the Chinese students through no fault of their own,” says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “And it used to be that for students coming from China to American universities, it was seen as a big transformational move. Now it’s seen as a transactional arrangement by many students.”

Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsellor to the president at the New York-based Institute of International Education, says many universities that have undertaken aggressive recruitment of Chinese students have not taken corresponding measures to help them adjust once they arrive. “Colleges and universities first try to solve the financial problem, then try to solve the needs of the students that are there,” she says. “So you’re going to see a lag.”

[Students have] been put in a very awkward situation and forced to deal with a new culture they don’t understand, so often they just revert back to a shell mentality. They’re emotionally and psychologically unprepared, so they go into their own little corner for four years
Jiang Xueqin, a Beijing-based education researcher

In some communities, the steady increase in Chinese enrolment has bred local resentment. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign now has one of the largest Chinese student populations in the US, numbering nearly 5,900. In December, a local shuttle-bus company distributed an advertisement listing its advantages, one of them being, “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

After criticism, the company issued an “apology” for “offending half the planet”, but effectively dug itself deeper while echoing a common complaint. “This high percentage of non-native English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students,” it said, adding that having different cultures and ethnicities is valuable, “but we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder”.

On other campuses, hostility has been even more overt: flyers offering “ethical lessons” to Chinese at the University of Texas; a New Zealand teacher calling Chinese students “idiots” and telling them to go back to their own country; graffiti at the University of Sydney depicting a swastika with the phrase “Kill Chinese”. In December, the Chinese Embassy in Australia issued a warning about safety risks and “several cases of assaults and attacks against Chinese students”. 
Racist graffiti found in a University of Sydney toilet.

“[Students have] been put in a very awkward situation and forced to deal with a new culture they don’t understand, so often they just revert back to a shell mentality,” says Jiang Xueqin, a Beijing-based education researcher who has managed programmes for Chinese high-school students preparing to study abroad. “They’re emotionally and psychologically unprepared, so they go into their own little corner for four years.”

Research on Chinese study-abroad student attitudes has been limited, but the few surveys that have been conducted have presented a mixed picture. One 2016 survey of nearly 1,000 Chinese students studying at Purdue University – a large public college in rural Indiana – found that 29 per cent reported developing a more negative attitude toward the US since their arrival, with 26 per cent reporting a more positive attitude, and the rest remaining unchanged. “It basically depends on whom you talk with,” says Fenggang Yang, the Purdue sociologist who conducted the survey. “Some move in one direction, others in the other direction.”

Opinions were a bit less diverse when it came to their own country. Forty-four per cent said their attitude toward China had become more positive since coming to the US, with 17 per cent reporting a more negative view.

But these numbers may belie more complex ideological changes. Joanne Gong, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Kansas State University, remembers first arriving at the rural college town of Manhattan, Kansas, in the dead of night, surrounded by farmland and an eerie silence. “I felt really upset,” says the native of Sichuan. “I thought, ‘Oh, God, this is the life I chose? I don’t know how I’m going to survive the next three years here.’”

She came mostly because she hated how China’s education system restricted her thinking, and she had an obsession with teen drama Gossip Girl to boot. But upon arrival, she struggled with studying in English. She found that she spent most of her time at home, burdened with study and uncomfortable with the late-night drinking and partying that dominated the campus social scene. “I don’t really feel like I belong to this university,” she says. “Most students are nice, but I don’t think I can really be friends with them.”

These sorts of academic and social challenges can take their toll. One Yale University study found that 45 per cent of Chinese students surveyed at American universities reported symptoms of depression – triple the rate of the general population. Studies in Britain and Australia have yielded similar results.

However, Gong did come to appreciate many aspects of American society, including how people seem to be less judgmental of women, and how homosexuals and other traditionally marginalised groups receive less discrimination. And while her schoolwork has often been a struggle, she relishes the fact that her teachers encourage her to think rather than memorise. “The longer I stay here, the more complicated the feeling is,” she says. “It’s really hard sometimes – I have those mental breakdowns every once in a while – but still, I’ll always choose to study in America.”

She doesn’t know what she’ll do after graduating, but she doesn’t want to return to China. This hasn’t gone over well with her father. “He asks why I’m so obsessed with other countries,” she says. “He says, ‘You should love your motherland. Don’t be such a rebel.’”

The idea of being a rebel bemuses Gong, since she has often been upset by criticism of China from classmates of other countries. “I know [China is] not a free country and the president isn’t perfect,” she says. “But I don’t really like people talking s**t about it. They think communism is so bad and that China is under the same situation as North Korea, but it’s not.”

And she remembers biting her lip once when a Taiwanese classmate referred to Taiwan as a country. “It was in front of many Chinese students and no one stood up to defend,” she recalls with disappointment. “I should have [challenged her], but I was such a coward, so I didn’t.” In another situation, she did speak up – to defend China’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands when a peer said the disputed territory belonged to Japan. “It p***ed me off, but that’s when I realised I was really affected by the Chinese education system – always taught to defend our country no matter what.”
University of California, Berkeley student Forrest Sam.

A recent graduate from Shanghai, who goes by the name Forrest Sam, recalls that when he was preparing to study in the US, a family friend warned that his son’s English actually got worse while studying in Canada for four years. This made Sam determined to avoid falling into a Chinese bubble.

When he arrived at University of California, Berkeley, he was indeed struck by how many of his classmates insulated themselves in Chinese enclaves. Referring to religious clubs for students, Sam says that Chinese automatically split up according to their place of origin. “Even for one religion, there are four separate clubs for students from the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau,” he says. “They’re so good at creating divisions.”

Sam arrived with a very admirable view of most things American, including movies, music, role models, technology and political freedoms. In high school, he frequently recited Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I have a dream” speech to practise English. But after arriving, he was surprised by the financial struggles that many of his American classmates went through, and the widespread poverty around San Francisco. 

“I realised, ‘Oh, not everybody is that wealthy,’” he says. And even in the famously liberal bastion, he was called a “chink”. Another Chinese classmate had rubbish thrown at him by a stranger and was told to go back to his own country. “But most of the time, racism is silent,” Sam says. “They won’t say it to your face.”

Nevertheless, Sam professes to hold the mainstream American perspective on most political issues, although he usually avoids talking about it. “I want to stay out of the political s**t,” he says. “It’s just too messy. I normally don’t start a conversation with people saying, ‘What do you think of Taiwan?’ That’s pretty much picking a fight.”

Another Chinese sophomore at UC Berkeley (name withheld) is less restrained. When asked in what way her thinking has changed the most since arriving, she doesn’t hesitate. “On Taiwan,” she replies. “I’ve realised China’s position is ridiculous. Taiwan can be independent.”

While they tend to get less attention than those who aggressively defend China’s political positions, students like this are common. Jonathan Sullivan, a political scientist at Britain’s University of Nottingham, teaches courses in Chinese politics that routinely delve into sensitive issues like Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square. He says the prevailing narrative about nationalist Chinese students needs balance. With his students from mainland China, there are often spirited discussions, but he has never had an unpleasant dust-up. 

The start of the Beijing Olympic torch relay in Canberra in 2008. The Australian leg of the troubled Olympic torch relay got off to a noisy start with thousands of Chinese supporters outnumbering pro-Tibet protesters. Picture: AFP

“I have had many Chinese students thank me for illuminating their own understanding about China,” he says. “They are clear that the world view they receive in China is partial, and are receptive to a respectfully put corrective.”

Past studies, while again limited in scope, suggest that many Chinese students do reject their political education without even leaving China. One 2007 survey of students at several Beijing universities found that 56 per cent said they liked the overall American political system; only 4 per cent disliked it (the rest were neutral). This decisively beat the 28 per cent who said they liked China’s overall political system; 22 per cent expressed dislike.

A 2011 survey of students at one college found that 73 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Western political systems are very appropriate for [China].” Only 7 per cent disagreed. The same study found that the political education that Chinese students are subject to isn’t particularly effective at endearing them to their leadership – greater comprehension of the education didn’t correlate with greater support of the Chinese government (though it did make them less inclined to express dissent through activities like joining a strike or protest).

Once [students] come to the West, they often realise there are a lot of things that aren’t as good as they thought before. So they update their perceptions
Haifeng Huang, University of California, Merced political scientist

Haifeng Huang, the University of California, Merced political scientist who conducted the study, ran a separate survey of university students in China that gauged what makes them want to go abroad. He found that overestimation of foreign countries’ socioeconomic conditions strongly correlated with interest in going abroad. It likewise correlated with having more negative views of China and the Chinese government. “But once they come to the West, they often realise there are a lot of things that aren’t as good as they thought before,” Huang says. “So they update their perceptions.”

When surveys of students in domestic Chinese universities are compared with those studying in the US, they appear to give credence to the idea that studying abroad tempers admiration of democratic political systems, though it is far from a universal experience. The survey of Chinese students at Purdue found that 37 per cent professed a belief that democracy is better than any other form of government (28 per cent disagreed and the rest were neutral). But 43 per cent agreed that “China’s current political system is the most suitable one for China”; 27 per cent disagreed.

Blumenthal says she is not particularly worried about students’ perceptions of the US being lowered while studying there. “We take that gamble when we invite international students or scholars here,” she says. “We assume they’ll benefit from understanding our culture, good and bad. It’s not that they’ll love our culture, but they will understand more of what it’s about.”

She notes that Communist Party surveillance and influence activities are nothing new – they’ve existed on Western campuses for decades – and some issues contributing to alienation among Chinese students are improving. Schools are recognising the need to invest more resources to help international students adjust, and Chinese students are coming at younger ages (at undergraduate level and below), when they’re more likely to integrate with local peers. 

Blumenthal scoffs at the idea that academic freedom is being undermined by Chinese authorities or students. “I think there are many other things more threatening to Western academic freedom than that,” she says.

Beijing-based researcher Jiang is less sanguine. He says there’s been a rapid uptick of “woefully inadequately prepared” Chinese students in the US, which is cultivating more nationalistic anti-American attitudes and setting the stage for harmful long-term consequences. “A lot of the responsibility is also with the Americans,” he adds. “The American mentality is becoming very provincial, very isolationist. Look at someone like Trump, right?”

Like most students interviewed, Lian falls somewhere in between loving and hating her sojourn country. She says that while her initial rosy image of the US was quickly crushed, she still relishes the education she has received and does not regret coming. But she’s still not patient with what she sees as American arrogance. 

“I don’t really mind if [people] say China has a terrible government or human rights,” Lian says. “I totally agree. It’s just when they say China is bad compared with America. Then I’m just like, ‘Um, this country is in a terrible situation, too, and this past election totally proved it.’”

This article originally appeared on (and is republished with permission)