Amid a Pandemic and Social Unrest, Chinese Students (and Their Parents) are Eyeing US Schools with Caution

Will skyrocketing infection numbers, a spate of ugly racist incidents involving Asians, and an ongoing protest movement be enough to scare off the single largest subset of international students at US universities?
03 July 2020, 4:59am
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Over the past few weeks, universities and colleges across the United States have begun announcing plans for reopening this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, offering students much-needed certainty after months of unprecedented upheaval.

However, for many of the thousands of Chinese nationals with plans to begin graduate or undergraduate studies in the U.S. this September, things remain in a state of flux.

Like students from all over the globe, most Chinese students have been unable to get the necessary F-1 visas ever since the State Department suspended all routine visa services at its embassies and consulates in March. In China, visa appointments are now being scheduled for November, months after the start of the fall semester. But for some, the question of whether it will be possible to obtain a visa in time has become secondary to the question of whether they should be going to the United States at all.

“They see the numbers [of coronavirus infections here] compared to the numbers in China, so they consider America extremely unsafe,” said QiMei Pan, owner of ISM Consulting Group, an upstate New York educational consulting firm with a large mainland clientele. “That’s [really] their first concern.”

Despite Chinese officials’ early attempts to cover up the emergence of the novel coronavirus when it first appeared in Wuhan late last year, China ultimately imposed stringent measures to contain the virus. More than six months on, the country’s largely successful efforts at tamping down new infections have emerged as a point of pride for Chinese citizens. Meanwhile, the response of their country’s greatest rival, the United States, has been shambolic by comparison.

Now, with rising infection rates and deaths, an ugly spate of racist incidents against Asians, and ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism, a consensus is emerging, even among China’s intellectual elite, that the U.S. has become a dangerous and volatile place.

Yujian, a rising freshman at an arts college in Los Angeles who asked to be identified only by his first name, doesn’t think there’s anything to worry about, but his parents want him to stay home in Qingdao next year and take his classes online.

“They are always saying, ‘Don't go to America this year,’” he said. “Whenever they see the news, they just think, oh, the virus in America is so serious.”

While Yujian’s parents have faith that China can effectively deal with the virus should it return, they don’t trust California to do the same.

“They are just worried about my health,” he added. “The media makes people think that the American government just does nothing for the people.”

Lu Feng, a data analyst in Beijing who previously worked in medicine and is set to go to Cornell’s MA program in biostatistics, said that she too finds the U.S.’s comparatively laissez-faire approach to containing COVID-19 alarming.

“Just the way people treat this virus makes me worried,” she said, noting that she was confounded by some Americans’ refusal to wear face masks.

And should she get her visa in time to come to the U.S. this fall, she’s anxious she’ll become a target of discrimination or violence by virtue of being Asian and wearing a face mask, something she has heard happens quite frequently.

“Americans think this virus was brought to them by Asians,” Lu said. “[That] maybe threatens the safety of Asian students. If I [go and] wear a mask, I don’t want people to think I’m sick.”

Pan, the consultancy owner, confirmed that reports of coronavirus-related racism have created a sense of unease among those in China either going or sending their children to the United States for school. She noted that her business has been contacted by an increased number of students and parents about the F-1 visa delays, and deferring admission until spring, or even next year.

“There are many hate crimes going on around the country, and parents really worry about their children's safety. They’ve said, ‘We don't know if all kids will be discriminated [against] because they're coming from China,’” she said.

Those fears have only been compounded by China’s political leveraging of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in May. State media coverage of the movement has been quick to cast the United States’ history of systemic racism as evidence of its hypocrisy on human rights, and reports played up violence at subsequent protests as proof of the U.S.’s inherent weakness and instability.

Whether or not the students come isn’t just an important consideration to the students themselves—U.S. institutions of higher learning have increasingly come to rely on international students, a third of them Chinese, to supplement declining domestic enrollment and subsidize rising costs. However, after a decade of rapid growth in Chinese students coming to the U.S., their numbers have declined since 2018.

Pan believes this trend will likely continue, especially in light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s proclamation last month suspending visas for mainland post-graduate students and researchers with ties to Chinese institutions linked to the People’s Liberation Army. A separate measure introduced in the House of Representatives, similarly prompted by espionage fears, calls for suspending visas altogether for Chinese graduate and post-graduate students in STEM fields.

Pan has already begun to see real hesitation among her clients.

“I’ve had parents of college students come to me and ask if the new policy will affect their children [since they] are STEM major,” she said. “High school seniors who want to study sensitive majors like aerospace engineering, artificial intelligence, physics, and data science are asking my advice. Many students are considering applying to universities outside of America as a backup.”

However, Christopher Frey, an educational historian and Associate Professor at Bowling Green State University, points out that fewer international students overall have been coming to the U.S. since Trump took office, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why.

“It could be news of violence and shootings in the U.S., but embassies have also been taking longer to issue visas, and fewer students have been able to come because of bureaucratic slowdowns,” he said.

Frey doesn’t see Chinese students completely turning away from American universities, noting that the opportunities that studying abroad provides seem to be worth the risk to most.

“I think you'll have a hard time finding examples of entire countries or nationalities rejecting study abroad in the U.S. because of policies directed at international students,” he said. “They may be kept out, but that doesn't seem to diminish the desire to come here to study."

Indeed, Lu Feng, the student, has resigned herself to online classes this fall, but still hopes to be in New York by the spring. As a student of data sciences, she is a little concerned about having her visa declined, but doesn’t think her field ”could be any threat to the United States’ domination in technology or national security.”

Yujian, meanwhile, seems to have convinced his parents to allow him to go to L.A. in September if the embassy opens in time. Now, he says, all he can do is wait.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.