Post-Pandemic, Will China Use Its Students as Bargaining Chips?

Experts say Taiwan could well lose students, but they differ on other parts of the world.

June 26, 2020

China has taken a much more assertive -- some would say aggressive -- global position in recent months as it defends itself against criticism on a host of issues, from the handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak to scrutiny of its technology companies and research ties. Stuck in the middle are its students, who may be eager to seek new experiences overseas but may also be caught up in an increasingly fraught geopolitical situation.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government cited “many discriminatory incidents against Asians” in its warning against study in Australia, a country with which it is also embroiled in trade and political disputes. In April, Beijing blocked its graduates from applying to universities in Taiwan, because of both COVID-19 fears and what it called the “current relationship,” a common way of referring to strained relations.

China is not the only one engaging in saber-rattling. The U.S. has threatened to expel thousands of Chinese scholars tied to military-linked universities and, most recently, blocked the Harbin Institute of Technology from access to critical engineering software and U.S. partnerships, the Nikkei Asian Review reported on June 17.

So with the pandemic looking likely to leave China in a stronger world position having weathered the medical -- and thus economic -- impacts better than most nations, what do these geopolitics mean for the flows of Chinese students so crucial to so many Western university systems? Could the Chinese government ever follow through on threats to use its students as weapons in its broader conflicts?

Zhiqun Zhu, chair of the department of international relations at Bucknell University and inaugural director of its China Institute, told Times Higher Education that “when relations between China and other countries go sour, these students often suffer at both ends. China may use them as a bargaining chip to achieve diplomatic goals, while foreign countries may not welcome some of them and accuse them of spying for the Chinese government.”

“For whatever calculations, using students as a diplomatic instrument by either China or a foreign country is a lose-lose-lose game: for China, for the host country and most importantly for the students,” he argued.

These tensions come amid a boom in the number of Chinese students heading overseas, which has more than doubled in a decade. In the 2018-19 academic year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 370,000 Chinese students in the U.S., 160,000 in Australia, 141,000 in Canada and 120,000 in Britain, according to figures from those countries.

Western universities have become financially dependent on tuition paid by Chinese students, sharpening the perceived threats by China over its students. Chinese student fees make up 25 to 30 percent of income at some top Australian universities. While that figure is lower at British universities, Chinese students are still worth an estimated 1.7 billion pounds ($2.1 billion) to Britain’s higher education sector. They also heavily subsidize public higher education in the U.S. and Canada.

Mobo Gao, a China studies professor at the University of Adelaide, explained some of the reasons behind China’s comments about student flows to Australia.

“This is clearly Beijing’s way of saying, ‘Look, mate, you cannot expect me to accept your continual provocation without doing something,’” Gao suggested, citing Australia’s critical language in calling for a COVID-19 investigation, banning of Chinese tech company Huawei and other restrictions on Chinese investment.

Student flows all around the world are expected to drop this year because of travel bans, campus closures and economic pressure on students and their families. Asian populations, in particular, have been alarmed by pandemic problems in the West: high COVID-19 infection rates and reports of discrimination against Asian students.

The one place where mainland China has implemented an actual ban on student outflows is Taiwan, a self-governed island with a population of 23 million that Beijing considers its territory.

The Ministry of Education of China announced in April that mainland Chinese students would not be allowed to apply to Taiwanese universities, although students who are already enrolled in courses would be able to continue. It said that the decision was taken “in view of the novel coronavirus outbreak and current relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

The ban came after Taiwan shut its borders in February to everyone who was not a Taiwan resident, including mainland Chinese. It has been in essence free of COVID-19 since April.

Chen Xin, a mainland Chinese student who declined to use her real name for security reasons, told Times Higher Education that she had planned on applying to gender studies programs in Taiwan for the 2020-21 academic year and was seeking “new experiences” but was blocked by new regulations.

“My first reaction to the policy was that I was quite shocked,” she said. “Then I was curious about why, because the announcement was very short and did not include many details.” She sent an open inquiry to the education ministry, which replied that it could not comment owing to the fact that it was a “national secret.”

Messages in a WeChat group of mainland students looking to study in Taiwan expressed disappointment that application plans had been disrupted, she said.

Chen has not considered alternative destinations, because it is now too late to prepare for exams and overseas admissions. Instead, she is looking for a job and hopes that the “tide will change” by next year.

Beijing has been gradually cutting ties with Taiwan and halved the quota of mainland Chinese students allowed there in 2017.

However, Zhu was more upbeat about longer-term prospects overseas.

“The number of Chinese students studying abroad will only grow in the years ahead despite various obstacles they may face,” he said. “In addition to college and graduate students, more and more younger students at high school, middle school and even primary school levels are pursuing study overseas. This is a trend that will continue to grow in China. Talk to Chinese parents and students, and you'll realize how zealous they are.”

Chinese students were adept at adjusting “to changing conditions and policies,” he continued. “For example, if it's more difficult to study in the STEM fields in the U.S., these students will go to Europe or Canada, and if the Chinese government discourages them from studying in Australia, they will flock to North America or Europe. Many of the students seem realistic and flexible as far as their destinations are concerned.”

Zhu said it was unlikely that China would bar its students from going to a particular country, or vice versa.

“We should not overestimate the negative impact of deteriorating relations between China and some foreign countries on Chinese students,” he said. “Cultural and educational exchanges between China and other countries remain dynamic. Over all, the opportunities for these students to broaden their horizons are still readily available.”

Gao of the University of Adelaide agreed that student bans were unlikely.

“China really cannot afford to retaliate in this area if China wants to upgrade its capacity in manufacturing chains, or if China wants to be part of the broad international community,” he argued. “In any case, a lot of the Chinese political, cultural and business elite have families in the U.S.A.”

While Gao said that although it was hard to predict how international relations would develop, Chinese families’ interest in educational opportunities would not change: “I think most middle-class Chinese want their children to have a Western education and want a Western lifestyle, but will they be allowed to?”

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, said that “Taiwan’s case is different from English-speaking Western countries and Western European countries, at least for the moment. It is relatively low pain for the party-state to ban students from going to Taiwan’s universities. The number of Chinese students affected is not huge, and Taiwan is not a top destination.”

He felt it was unlikely that China would block students from heading to major Western destinations such as members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the U.S.) and large E.U. states such as Germany.

“A coordinated response from the Five Eyes will, I suspect, deter Beijing from acting out its threat to Australia,” he said.

“Stopping Chinese students going to universities in all [these countries] would be enormously costly for the party-state, as hundreds of thousands of young Chinese would not be able to go to universities there, including the world’s best universities,” Tsang continued. “It would also damage China’s ambition in technological upgrading. So, I really don’t see that as on the agenda, at least not for a while yet.”

Jing Liu contributed reporting.

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