CRF Blog

Alienation 101

by David De La Torre

In Alienation 101 for 1843 magazine, Brook Larmer spent a week tracking Chinese students studying at the University of Iowa to see how things were going.

Even as relations between America and China become more distant, one strong undercurrent is moving in the opposite direction: Chinese students flooding into American universities. There are now 328,000 of them, five times as many as a decade ago. So intense is the hunger for an American education that Chinese students now make up nearly a third of the more than 1m international students in America. No single front in bilateral relations connects more people in both countries, or has the potential to influence a cohort so vital to the future: the sons and daughters of China’s ruling class.

The offspring of China’s economic boom are not the first to study in “the beautiful country”, as the US is known in Chinese. A century and a half ago, when the first 120 Chinese students came to America wearing the braided queues of the Qing Dynasty, they were told by their imperial masters to “learn from the barbarians” to help modernise China after its defeat in the opium wars. American officials saw a chance to instil in the next generation of Chinese elites so-called American values: democracy and Christianity. The experiment ended in 1881, after less than a decade, when Qing officials worried that the church-going, baseball-playing boys were becoming too Westernised. The fear ran both ways: a year later, America instituted the Chinese Exclusion Act, a ban on Chinese immigration that would last 60 years.

The current influx of Chinese students is driven not by the state but by individual ambitions. They come because a good foreign degree is respected in China, and some also act as forward scouts for their families, to score a green card that may eventually allow their relations to secure American residency. In a survey in 2016 by Hurun, a Shanghai research firm, five out of six wealthy Chinese families said they planned to send their children abroad for university. Their fees are helping cash-strapped American universities stay afloat. Last year Chinese students contributed $11.4bn to America’s economy in tuition and other expenses. “Politicians always talk about China stealing American jobs,” says Wenfang Tang, a University of Iowa political-science professor who arrived in the us as a graduate student in 1982. “But the money is coming back through the Chinese students.”

A disproportionate number of these Chinese kids are landing in the American Midwest, one of the nation’s least ethnically diverse areas. Few have wooed China more assiduously than the University of Iowa, whose courtship of Chinese students coincided with a devastating flood and state budget cuts. The number of Chinese undergraduates there has jumped from just 47 a decade ago to 2,012 this year, accounting for 80% of all international undergraduates and injecting more than $100m a year into Iowa’s coffers in tuition fees, and room and board alone.

At Iowa, as at many other American universities, the influx happened so fast that students, both Chinese and American, have had little time to adjust. As a consequence, what could have been a meaningful cultural encounter can feel instead like a lost opportunity. The Chinese population is so large that it forms a separate world. Many Chinese speak only Mandarin, study only with other Chinese, attend only Chinese-organised events – and show off luxury cars in Chinese-only auto clubs. The Chinese government and Christian groups may vie for their hearts and minds. But few others show much interest, and most Chinese students end up floating in a bubble disconnected from the very educational realms they had hoped to inhabit. [more]