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The Complicated Politics of Chinese Students Abroad

Panelists at Asian studies conference discuss the dynamics that accompany large influxes of Chinese students abroad.

March 27, 2019
 

DENVER -- The rapid growth in the number of Chinese students studying abroad has created complex new political dynamics in the classroom, speakers said during a panel here at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting titled “Politics and Ideology: Classroom China in the Age of Higher Education Globalization.”

Alisa Jones, a senior lecturer at the University of Tübingen in Germany who studies history education in China, began the panel by discussing what Chinese students learn in their schooling about Chinese history. “For Chinese students, they’ve had a very, very comprehensive study of Chinese history from ancient times to the present, and they have repeated this at every level of schooling,” she said.

Although the historical narrative taught in schools has changed somewhat over time, Jones said what’s currently in vogue is a "narrative of humiliation," a narrative of a great ancient civilization that was oppressed by Western powers from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. Jones quoted a colleague who summed up the narrative in seven words: “We was great, and we was robbed.”

At the same time, Jones said that while there is an emphasis on teaching students a “correct” version of history, there’s also in Chinese schooling “this idea that we need students who are more innovative, creative and able to think for themselves in order to compete in a global knowledge economy. This creates problems for students who have been taught on the one hand that there is a correct interpretation of history but at the same time are supposed to think critically: these two things don’t really go together. I think the result of that sometimes comes out in school classrooms when these students go abroad.”

David Kenley, a history professor at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania, began his presentation by citing survey research on the motivations of Chinese students in the U.S. The survey -- which was discussed in an article published in 2017 in the Journal of International Students -- found that the top motive for studying abroad reported by Chinese students was to get a different perspective on their home country.

“Alisa’s talked about the education system, the century of shame, the idea from Opium War to 1949 [the year of the founding of the People’s Republic], China had been bullied by West, robbed by the West of their rightful place on the national stage, and it’s their responsibility to make sure that never happens again,” Kenley said. “On the other hand, if we’re going to take their self-reported motives at face value, they say they want to understand other cultures. They want to understand the U.S.”

Kenley said that Chinese students have engaged in activism in different ways in the U.S. “I don’t mean to be simplistic, because with 350,000 students you get 350,000 narratives,” he said, “but we do see at least in the popular press that these students can sometimes use their opportunities abroad to be critical of their home country and at other times they can use their opportunity abroad to be extremely defensive and protective of their home country.”

Kenley cited the case of a University of Maryland College Park student from China, Yang Shuping, who came under immense pressure to make a public apology after she gave a commencement speech praising the “fresh air of free speech” she found at an American campus. He also cited the “Xi’s Not My President” movement, in which Chinese international students on Western campuses registered their protest of the abolition of presidential term limits, a move that cleared the way for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.

Kenley noted, however, that one of the students involved in the "Xi's Not My President" campaign was quoted in media as saying he had to hang posters late at night to avoid being seen. Writing under a pseudonym in Foreign Policy, one student activist wrote that while hanging up posters is a common political act on campuses in democratic countries, "for Chinese studying at these same campuses, it is dangerous to publicly express opinions that go against the party line. We know that our career prospects back in China are likely to suffer if we are publicly known to have criticized the party; it will be more difficult for us to make connections, snag interviews and receive job offers and promotions. Chinese authorities have also been known to harass the families of outspoken Chinese students abroad, to interrogate Chinese returnees, or, in extreme cases, even kidnap Chinese abroad." (Links per original.)

Kenley also referenced a 2018 New York Times article -- "On Campuses Far From China, Still Under Beijing’s Watchful Eye" -- that discusses the ways in which the Chinese government uses affiliated Chinese Students and Scholars Associations to promote a pro-Chinese agenda on campus. A well-known China expert quoted in the article, Perry Link, described the CSSAs as tools of China's foreign ministry that among other things monitor unpatriotic speech by Chinese students: "The effect of that surveillance is less that certain people are caught and punished and more that virtually all Chinese students know they could be reported and, therefore, watch what they say in public fora,” Link, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, is quoted as saying in the article.

“There’s tremendous amount of self-censorship, group pressure. Chinese students who maybe want to be critical of their home country find it’s not desirable to do so for social reasons or peer pressure,” Richard Madsen, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, said during the panel discussion at the Asian studies conference.

“I think we need to be aware of ways in which we’re complicit with policing these boundaries,” Madsen said. “Those of us who need to travel from China, those of us who need financial support from China, I think oftentimes we find ourselves censoring what goes on in our classrooms as well.”

With the growing dependence on many U.S. colleges on tuition revenue from China, "we have become addicted to Chinese money," Madsen said.

At the same time, Robert Sutter, a professor of practice of international affairs at George Washington University, raised the difficult question of whether professors should counsel discretion when Chinese students say or write things Chinese authorities likely wouldn't like. He said he recently advised a student who wrote a paper on such a hot-button topic not to pass it around, for the student's own sake.

Madsen commented that the consequences for students of saying things that might upset Chinese officials differ based on their goals. For students who aspire to stay in the U.S., "they can be more outspoken," he said. "There are those who are aspiring to go back to China to work in business or government, and they’re different."

"To be outspoken, if you want to stay here, could be good," Madsen added. "It could get you better jobs."

After all, it's not only Chinese politics that students from the mainland have to navigate while they're overseas. For those studying in the U.S., they face an increasingly complex politics here.

In his comments Sutter addressed the increasingly suspicious view toward China taken by the U.S. government, a suspiciousness that is manifesting in heightened concerns from security agencies about theft of intellectual property and the risk that some Chinese students and scholars might be acting as spies. Sutter said what he believes is driving this discourse is a conviction that whoever wins the high-tech competition with China will dominate the national security space: by this line of logic, he said, "what's at stake is being dominated by China."

“This discourse I think is having an effect on public opinion,” said Sutter. He added that he doesn't believe it will go away any time soon.

“What I see is this trend within U.S. government policy is not contingent on Mr. Trump. The bureaucracy is very much moving in this direction and the Congress, including the Democrats, is supporting this kind of effort.”

Madsen said he thinks multiple narratives -- including anti-immigration narratives, narratives about persecution of Christians in China, and narratives about spying and intellectual property theft -- are gaining traction within various subgroups that all have their own media sources and coalescing into a "grand narrative" in America about China.

“Of course, there’s an American narrative on China, but there’s also an American narrative on America,” added Jones, complicating the picture further. “The American story of America, it’s very triumphalist, and then maybe over the last few years there’s been this loss of the feeling of greatness, and hence, ‘Make America Great Again.’”

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