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A core assumption of international education is that more conversations between domestic and foreign students will result in mutual understanding and more positive, friendly feelings. But what if those conversations, when they happen, result instead in retrenchment? What if they leave a bitter taste behind?

Henry Chiu Hail, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California at Irvine, explores these questions in a new article, “Patriotism Abroad: Overseas Chinese Students’ Encounters with Criticisms of China,” just published in the Journal of Studies in International Education. As the number of Chinese students in the U.S. has grown -- there are more than a quarter-million Chinese students at American universities, and they make up the single largest international student group in terms of country of origin – their engagement, or lack of engagement, with domestic students and the broader campus community has been a cause for concern. Yet Hail’s research points to the complicated political dynamics that can be at play.

“Prior research suggests that if host country members were more interested in talking to international students, then more positive experiences and friendships between host country students and international students would take place,” Hail writes. “While this is undoubtedly true in many cases, anecdotal experiences of many sojourning students from China suggest that it is often precisely the host students’ interest in China’s political and social matters that leads to negative interactions between Chinese and host country students.”

“Some Chinese students complain that host country students want to talk with them about China but exhibit misinformed, prejudiced and offensive views of Chinese current events. Conflicting views of China’s political and social situation can sometimes lead to intense hostility between Chinese and host country students.” Hail specifically cites the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Chinese students on many U.S. campuses protested perceived anti-China biases in characterizations of the dispute over Tibetan sovereignty and the riots that spring in Lhasa.

The year 2008 was a particularly tense time, Hail acknowledges, but he's heard plenty of more commonplace complaints from Chinese students who don’t like the way their professors or peers talk about China. To gain a better understanding of how Chinese students view their interactions with Americans, he conducted a small-scale qualitative study in which he interviewed 18 Chinese students and scholars at a public research university in Hawaii and also asked them to answer an open-ended written survey. All 18 of the subjects were part of China’s dominant Han ethnic group; 15 were graduate students, one was an undergraduate, and two were assistant professors who had completed their graduate educations in the U.S. Eleven were female and seven male. Six of the respondents had been in the U.S. for five to seven months, while the remaining 12 had been in the country for at least two years.

In their responses, Hail identified four common modes of reacting to criticism of their home country:

  • “Status-based”: In this mode, as Hail describes it, “the students were upset because they felt that the status of China or Chinese people was being attacked or threatened in some way.” They viewed criticisms of a specific aspect of China as equivalent to an attack on the status of the whole nation or its people. In one case, for example, a participant in the study described asking an American what she thought of China: “She [the student] said that China’s pollution was very serious. I asked if she’d seen the [Beijing] Olympics. She said she saw the opening ceremony. She asked me if I thought that the festivities reflected China’s yearning to develop and protect the environment. After this I felt very unhappy.”
  • “Loyalty-based”: As Hail writes, many Chinese students felt it was important to demonstrate loyalty to China in talking to Americans. He notes that though the survey respondents were critical of some aspects of their home country, they also thought it important to establish their loyalty to their country in a conversation with Hail, an American researcher. As he writes, “While being interviewed, several Chinese participants started to complain about various problems in China, only to follow their complaints with an expression of guilt and a desire to re-establish their sense of loyalty to China. For example, one student, after spending several minutes talking about corruption in China, suddenly asked me, ‘Do you think that I’m a traitor? I shouldn’t say bad things about China to you.’ ”
  • “Harmony-seeking”: In this mode, students simply sought to avoid speaking of sensitive subjects with Americans in order to avoid conflict. They were thus uncomfortable when political subjects arose. “You know, when we are talking [about China] I feel that they are misunderstanding me, but I don’t want to cause personal conflict with each other, so I always avoid talking [about] this kind of topic,” a Chinese graduate student told Hail. “But I feel that sometimes my American friends, I think they have this kind of bias... maybe when they go to China [and] see the situation themselves, they will find the truth.”
  • “Utilitarian”: Still other Chinese students in Hail’s study were sensitive to the practical effect of any criticism of their country. They objected to criticism that they believed was intended to undermine China’s national interests. As a graduate student told Hail, “If what [Americans] criticize is about China being more behind other countries, this kind of criticism stings, but Chinese of course have the right to listen or not listen, use or not use this criticism to improve China. But if they want to divide China, and make Tibet and Taiwan split from China, and then use human rights as an excuse, I personally think this kind of criticism is incorrect. Although the Chinese government needs to improve in some ways, the most important thing for China is to be united. ...So as a Chinese person, I am strongly against this kind of criticism.”

In an interview, Hail emphasizes that a lot of the defensiveness on the part of the Chinese students he interviewed was situational in nature, with many feeling that they needed to counteract perceived anti-China biases in the American media. “The fact is that not only do Americans mostly see negative images of China, not only do they often see China as a threat, but furthermore a lot of Chinese see the United States as jealous of China’s rising power. They see the United States as trying to limit China’s ascendance,” says Hail.

“There’s a very special context surrounding interactions between Chinese and American students. You can’t remove these interpersonal interactions from the larger geopolitical context.”

Hail did find that Chinese students who shared a sense of solidarity with Americans and were part of a mixed Chinese/American group – such as a class or religious group – were more likely to view criticism of China as being well-intended (even if they didn’t necessarily agree with it). “A precondition of productive discussion is that both parties believe each other to be benevolent,” he writes.

Hail says that the classroom can be a place for productive conversations as long as the professor takes steps to ensure the discussion is respectful. He quotes one Chinese student who appreciated the opportunity to build trust with her classmates by sharing food during seminar breaks. And he suggests that professors consider leading explicit discussions on the topic of cross-national interactions: “Such a discussion would allow students to express their feelings about past interactions, encourage students to think about how differences in experience and background affect perception, and emphasize the value of listening to different opinions.”

For those professors who want to take full advantage of the opportunity to educate Chinese and other international students in traditions of liberal democracy, Hail says that opportunities for students to observe American “democracy in action” could be more effective than lectures on China’s human rights record. He quotes a Chinese student who was impressed, for example, by the respectful interactions between a Democratic faculty member and Republican students in an American studies class, and another who speaks of being moved by a political protest she observed. While saying she didn’t agree with the protesters, the latter student, a graduate student in accounting, continued, “But I think people can have different thoughts. It’s our freedom and we can speak out, show our thoughts. I think maybe I don’t use those rights but I want to have them too.... I think also it can serve as a communication between the government and public. You can say your opinion rather than the government just ruling us.”

Yet that same student reacted defensively when American friends remarked that such political freedoms are lacking in China. “[My American friends] will tell me, ‘I heard that in China you can’t do that.’ I will say, ‘No, that’s not true!’ "

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