In many ways Zhang Dayin, a 30-year-old doctoral student of finance at the University of California, Berkeley, is living the American dream. He grew up in a small town in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, the son of a physically challenged seller of lottery tickets. A decade ago he became the first person in his family to go to university — Renmin University in Beijing, one of the country’s best. The capital’s affluence impressed him.
Zhang is one of more than 5.2 million Chinese who have gone abroad to study since Deng Xiaoping launched his “reform and opening” policy in 1978. The numbers are surging. In 2017, more than 600,000 Chinese headed abroad to university, four times the figure a decade earlier, bringing the number studying at that level outside China to nearly 1.5 million.
The main destinations are English-speaking countries, with America way ahead. Between 2006-2016 the number of Chinese students at US universities has increased fivefold, to more than 320,000. They make up nearly one-third of foreign students at the country’s universities. And they contribute more than $12 billion (Rs.81,000 crore) annually to its economy, according to America’s Department of Commerce.
The demand in China for education in the West, and the ease with which wealthier Chinese can secure it, has been a boon for many educational establishments. In America, cuts in state-government support have made public universities increasingly reliant on foreign students who pay the full fee. At Berkeley, that is more than $45,000 (Rs.30 lakh) per year for undergraduates.
American optimism about the power of education to make foreign students more like Americans has a long history. “I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here,” said Colin Powell, America’s then secretary of state, in 2001. Yet American officials and scholars find it hard to demonstrate any clear diplomatic benefits from having educated some 2 million Chinese in America since the late 1970s. Among them have been children of several Chinese leaders of the reform-and-opening period: Deng’s son Deng Zhifang, Jiang Zemin’s son Jiang Mianheng, Hu Jintao’s daughter Hu Haiqing (by some accounts) and Xi Jinping’s daughter Xi Mingze (who graduated from Harvard in 2014). On the contrary, in the past decade relations between China and America have become ever more distant and strained.
Students who went to America in the 1980s did show promising signs of enthusiasm for Western democracy. But China’s economic take-off in the 1990s, however, began to change those views. Students arriving in America since then have voiced mixed feelings about democracy and free markets, and how useful they might be for China. Now at Berkeley for a Ph D, Zhang has his doubts. “The whole world is getting confused,” he says, sitting in a coffee shop in nearby San Francisco. “Which system is good, which system is bad? There’s a lot of criticism of democracy in America and Britain. China is doing really well.”
The nationalism displayed by Chinese students abroad — sometimes in the form of unquestioning support for their government’s policies — has been causing disquiet in the West, on two main counts. The first is that students’ objections to views at variance with the Communist Party’s might stifle academic debate. The other is that the party might attempt to tap into this nationalism through Chinese student organisations and mobilise such groups to protest against activities that the party dislikes.
Several incidents in the past year support such concerns. In 2017, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at the University of California, San Diego, protested against the university’s decision to invite the Dalai Lama to the campus to speak at a graduation ceremony. At the University of Maryland, the CSSA posted a YouTube video denouncing a Chinese student who had praised America’s “fresh air” and “freedom” in a graduation speech (and criticised the lack of both in China). In Australia, four cases of students criticising their teachers for appearing to slight Chinese people caused a political storm.
But most Chinese students aren’t flag-wavers for the party’s cause. Many say they have little if any contact with their CSSA branches, and bridle at the suggestion that they might take political direction from it. Most show pride in China’s economic growth, but some also express doubts about the way the party rules.
Fran Martin of the University of Melbourne has been tracking the responses of about 50 female Chinese students to their experiences in Australia since 2015. She is scornful of the idea that they are tools of their government, and describes their patriotism as “ambiguous”. Some of the participants in her study told her they became more patriotic after arriving in Australia. But some students she has met also asked her about the unrest in 1989. “They were really receptive to hearing about it,” she says. “They were clearly open to thinking it was wrong” of the party to crack down the way it did.
The very presence of so many Chinese students on Western campuses demonstrates that their nationalism is complex. Some are there because their families have little faith in the party. Growing numbers of wealthy Chinese are anxious to secure a foothold abroad and think that sending a child to study there could help. A report in 2012 by Hurun, a Shanghai-based research firm, said of 2.7 million Chinese citizens who made over $1 million a year, 85 percent intended to send their children abroad to be educated. The West, for all its failings, is seen as a safe haven both for their money and, if necessary, for themselves.