US schools must protect overseas students

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/13 17:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Zhang Yingying, a 26-year-old Chinese visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, disappeared on June 9, about two months after she arrived in the US. Brendt Christensen, a 28-year-old former PhD student in physics who was an assistant teacher at the school, was charged with her kidnapping, and is now in detention awaiting trial. The police still haven't found Zhang. Hopes that she is still alive are waning with each passing hour. 

The case has attracted broad attention in the US as well as in China, partly because of its bone-chilling plot. The details that have emerged in court so far already sound like a perfect narrative for an episode of the TV newsmagazine Dateline, which often looks at murders and disappearances, often in small-town America.

Zhang was running late for an appointment that day. She tried to flag down a bus in vain and then Christensen approached her in his black Saturn. She climbed into the car and hasn't been seen again. He seemed a normal person with clean record but had visited the website "Abduction 101." To people in China who may not be familiar with Dateline, Hollywood horror movies could easily become references instead.

Projecting a real case onto the backdrop of dramas may help reaffirm an existing myth among some Chinese about the US - that this is a country where psychopaths are roaming the streets or lurking around the corner much of the time. This is untrue. Although there are no exact statistics for homicide committed by those who get diagnosed as psychopathic in the US, a rough picture can be drawn from the 2014 book Why We Love Serial Killers, in which the author, Scott Bonn, a professor in criminology at Drew University, concluded that serial killers make up less than 1 percent of murderers in the US.

But this doesn't mean the concerns among Chinese people, especially among parents of Chinese students, over their children's safety in the US is unfounded. According to a report released in April by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, the murder rate in the US has dropped 50 percent from 9.8 in 1991 to 5.3 in 2016 (per 100,000 people), but it did tick up 10.8 percent from 2014 to 2015, and then another 14 percent in 2016. Although the report attributed the reversal to mainly a few troubled places around the nation, they are still concerning figures for Chinese parents.

This is occurring at a time when there is a rapid increase in the number of Chinese students in the US. In 2000 when I first arrived in the US, there were 60,000 Chinese students studying here, or 10 percent of all international students in the country. Last year, the population of Chinese students was close to 330,000, or 32 percent of all international students.

This means that Chinese students do have more frequent appearances in American crime statistics. Behind the numbers are tears, anger, broken hearts, and, in many cases, the end of young and aspiring lives.

These include Yao Yu, a 23-year-old Chinese student who was raped and killed in New York in 2010, Wu Ying and Qu Ming, students at the University of Southern California who were killed in a robbery in front of their apartment close to the campus in 2012, Lü Lingzi, a student at Boston University who died in the 2013 Marathon bombing, and Ji Xinran, a student at the University of Southern California who was killed in a robbery in 2014.

Most American colleges have protocols on student safety. Some have tightened security measures after tragedies have happened. The University of Southern California, for example, even built a wall around the campus and started requiring ID for entry after 9 pm. after Wu and Qu died. Still, it failed to prevent Ji's murder two years later.

A reactive approach may not be enough. Universities in the US ought to do more to protect these students.

Due to cultural differences, international students often don't have the same common sense on safety and self protection as locals do. Chinese students in particular have their own blind spots. According to the latest statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the murder rate in China in 2014 was only 0.74 (per 100,000 people). And it is illegal for ordinary people to buy, sell or own a gun in China. Also the disparity of crime rates in different neighborhoods in China is far less than that in the US.

What's more, Chinese students coming to the US have been getting younger. In 2006, more than 80 percent of Chinese students in the US were in graduate schools. In 2015, more than half were high schoolers. The recklessness and inexperience of young people also exposes them to greater risk of being targeted by predators.

Crimes won't be eradicated in the US or anywhere in the world anytime soon. Sometimes tragedies may be inevitable. But for American universities, to provide culturally relevant safety training to international students may be an urgent matter. Such training, if properly designed, can at least prevent some nightmares. Who knows, if she had attended a security class Zhang may not have got into a predator's car that day.

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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