China’s Ministry of Education on Monday warned students interested in studying in the U.S. about potential difficulties getting visas from the American government.
“For some time, some of the visas for Chinese students studying in the United States have been restricted,” the ministry said. “The visa review period has been extended, the validity period has been shortened and the refusal rate has increased. This has affected the Chinese students studying in the United States normally or successfully completing their studies in the United States. The Ministry of Education reminds students and scholars to strengthen risk assessment before going abroad to study, enhance awareness of prevention and make appropriate preparations.”
The statement from China’s Ministry of Education comes amid increasing tensions between the U.S. and China over the issue of higher education and in the context of a broader trade war. The U.S. last year shortened the duration of visas for Chinese graduate students in certain science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields from five years to one year, and Chinese-U.S. research collaborations have become the focus of intensified scrutiny from the White House, members of Congress, scientific funding agencies and national security agencies, all of which have raised concerns about the risk of espionage and intellectual property theft posed by Chinese students and scholars.
Outside the STEM fields, the US. has reportedly canceled visas for a number of Chinese professors affiliated with the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. And many colleges have closed their Confucius Institutes -- Chinese government-funded centers for language education and cultural programming -- amid growing criticism from U.S. lawmakers who argue that the institutes serve as platforms for Chinese propaganda. The defense spending act passed into law last year bars colleges that receive Defense Department funding for Chinese language study from also hosting Confucius Institutes, a restriction that has contributed to the spate of closures.
"The United States rejects the unfounded allegation of a widespread and baseless campaign to deny Chinese visas," a State Department official said. The official said that the majority of visa applicants receive visas valid for the maximum five years, though "regulations authorize consular officers to limit the validity of any visa on a case-by-case basis and as appropriate to the circumstances of each case." The official also said that in cases where visa applicants are found to require additional security screening, the visa will not be issued until the screening is completed. "The amount of time it takes to complete this additional screening depends on the individual circumstances of each case," the official said.
The State Department declined Inside Higher Ed's request to provide statistics on visa denial rates for Chinese students.
"The U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities have identified an increasing number of instances in which foreign intelligence services co-opt academics, researchers and others to conduct activities on behalf of foreign governments during the individual’s stay in the United States," the State Department official said. "We cannot publicly discuss details of any specific case; however, when such activity is identified, the appropriate U.S. agencies act to protect U.S. interests and U.S. persons using a variety of legal authorities under our rule of law."
More than 363,000 students from China studied at American colleges and universities in 2017-18, representing the largest single group of students by country of origin and accounting for fully a third of all international students in the U.S., according to data from the Institute of International Education. Chinese undergraduate students are an important source of tuition revenue for many colleges, and Chinese graduate students are an important part of American universities’ research enterprise. Students from China made up more than 12 percent of all students earning doctorates in science and engineering fields in the U.S. in 2017, according to data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates.
The number of Chinese students in the U.S. has not declined yet: the IIE data show a 2 percent gain in Chinese undergraduate students and a 4 percent gain in Chinese graduate students from fall 2017 to fall 2018, while data from the Council of Graduate Schools found that the number of new Chinese students at American graduate schools did not change from fall 2017 to fall 2018. But given how important Chinese students are to U.S. higher education and research, many are worried that a drop could be coming as tensions between China and the U.S. rise.
In a press conference Monday about the warning, Xu Yongji, the deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Education's Department of International Cooperation and Exchange, said that educational cooperation with the U.S. "has become increasingly complex in the context of Chinese and American frictions over trade. The American Congress and federal authorities have politicized certain normal educational exchange and cooperation activities between China and the U.S., oppressing them in the name of 'Chinese threats' and 'Chinese infiltration.' Confucius Institutes have been slandered as Chinese tools to expand political influence and disseminate values in the United States; Chinese students and scholars have been accused of developing 'nontraditional espionage' activities as they are coming under undue interference."
Xu also cited statistics reflecting increased visa denial rates for government-funded students.
"According to statistics from China Scholarship Council, in 2018, China planned to fund 10,313 students to study in the U.S., but 331 could not go due to visa reasons; this is 3.2 percent of the people in the program," Xu said. "Between January and March of 2019, China planned to fund 1,353 students to study in the U.S., but 182 could not go due to visa reasons; this is 13.5 percent of the people in the program. Since 2018, American revocation or re-review of American visas for Chinese individuals for anti-espionage reasons has spread from the natural sciences to the social sciences. Recently, the United States also canceled 10-year visas for a group of Chinese scholars engaged in the study of China-U.S. relations.
"These actions have harmed the dignity of Chinese students studying in the United States and have also seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," Xu continued. "We can say that such American behavior is a cold snap for Chinese-American educational exchange and cooperation. We hope that the United States will quickly correct its erroneous ways and adopt a more proactive posture to do more that will benefit educational exchange and cooperation between the two countries, and to work hard to enhance the mutual understanding and friendship between the people of China and the United States."
Hans de Wit, the director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, said both China and the U.S. are using education "as part of the whole trade war to put pressure on each other."
De Wit, an Inside Higher Ed blog contributor, has written in these pages along with Philip Altbach about the vulnerability of international student flows to global instability and rising forces of nationalism.
"Because international students are so economically important, this instability will grow," de Wit said. "Higher education is becoming increasingly a part of the battlefield. That has to do on the one hand with the number of international students but at the same time the knowledge economy and the importance of research and science."
"This is in the context of this trade war but also in the context on both sides of suspicions of the other," said Richard Madsen, a research professor and emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the Fudan-UC Center on Contemporary China
"There is talk in Washington, D.C., about dangers of Chinese spying and espionage and stealing of intellectual property and so forth: you hear this from the director of the FBI and other voices in Washington and Congress. There's also a concern about so-called influence operations with the Confucius Institutes being a major source of that, and therefore kind of a move for universities to get rid of these Confucius Institutes."
"On the Chinese side, there’s intensified nationalism, and concerns about the United States either bullying China or trying to affect China in various ways. Issues like the Huawei issue" -- the Chinese telecom company that the U.S. has charged with stealing trade secrets and violating sanctions against Iran -- "are becoming important. There’s a fouling of relationships between the two countries that goes across a number of realms -- there’s the economic realm, there's the national defense realm, there’s the cultural realm -- these all come together and create increasingly deteriorating relationships with China, and I presume that in the future that will affect things like international students coming to the universities to study."
As to the effect of the ministry's statement in and of itself, Madsen said he thinks word had already gotten out in China about visa problems.
"I think families will look at their own experience and look at the knowledge they’ve gotten from friends and social networks and they will see if what the government says corresponds to what they know from other sources," he said. "I think in this case it will correspond. Whether it will deeply change anyone’s opinion, I don’t know. I think for many people it simply told them what they already knew."