President Trump on Tuesday ordered his administration to take steps to end the U.S. government’s flagship Fulbright exchange program in China and Hong Kong.
Trump stated his intent to end Fulbright exchanges with China and Hong Kong as part of an executive order directing the suspension or elimination of various policy exemptions in U.S. law that give Hong Kong preferential treatment in relation to mainland China. The order was prompted by the imposition by Beijing of a new national security law governing Hong Kong, a step that the executive order describes as “merely China’s latest salvo in a series of actions that have increasingly denied autonomy and freedoms” to Hong Kong, a semiautonomous region of China.
The provision about Fulbright was buried deep in the order, in Section 3, provision (i) -- right after a provision ordering the suspension of a collaboration in the earth sciences involving the U.S. Geological Survey and an institute at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The presidential-level intervention in the Fulbright program -- which comes about six months after the Peace Corps ended its China program and during a time of worsening U.S.-Chinese relations -- prompted concerns among scholars, who argued that canceling academic exchange programs is self-defeating.
Hilary V. Finchum-Sung, the executive director of the Association for Asian Studies, said the decision "is extremely shortsighted and will result in long-lasting implications for U.S. foreign affairs."
"Many of our members have benefited greatly from the Fulbright program, which creates the opportunity for Americans to build networks with and learn from people all over the world," Finchum-Sung said. "We need more support for such programs at this time in history, not less. We need to build understanding and intellectual knowledge and not foster ignorance."
Margaret Lewis, a professor of law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and an alumna of the Fulbright program in Taiwan, said the Fulbright program was created “to increase knowledge and compassion for the world outside the United States as well as to welcome people from outside the United States into the United States to better understand our country. Even if we have tremendous disagreements with the [People's Republic of China] -- and I think there’s no doubt that the U.S.-P.R.C.- relationship is going to be fraught for the foreseeable future -- it strikes me as shooting ourselves in the foot to say we’re going to understand the P.R.C. less and we’re going to create walls for people who are P.R.C. citizens to understand us less.”
Lonnie Johnson, who is writing a book about the history of the Fulbright program, said he was unaware of a similar case of a presidential-level intervention in a Fulbright program.
“Having an executive intervention at this level in a binational educational and cultural exchange program is to my knowledge unprecedented,” said Johnson, who recently retired from his position as executive director of the Fulbright Commission in Austria.
Anthony Dapirin, the author of City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, said on Twitter there are safety considerations.
"Terminating Fulbright exchanges with China+HK would appear to be an unfortunate end to constructive person-person exchanges; but given Fulbright has been targeted by PRC media as vehicle for US influence, in present environment Fulbright scholars' safety must be in question," he wrote.
The U.S. has Fulbright exchange programs in more than 160 countries, including many countries with which the U.S. has vexed relations and where there are substantial challenges with safety and security. The Fulbright program includes programs in which American students and scholars go abroad and programs in which foreign students and scholars come to the U.S.
The number of grantees for the China and Hong Kong programs is relatively small. In 2017, the last year for which data were published, there were a total of 175 U.S. and foreign grantees for the China program and 19 for the Hong Kong program.
The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which manages the Fulbright program, did not immediately respond to questions about the timeline for ending the program. The language of the proclamation refers to future incoming and outgoing exchanges, ordering agencies to "take steps to terminate the Fulbright exchange program with regard to China and Hong Kong with respect to future exchanges for participants traveling both from and to China or Hong Kong."
The Fulbright program is currently suspended for U.S. participants worldwide due to coronavirus.