Chinese students in US remain cautious about future even with Biden's possible policy relaxation

By GT staff reporters Source: Global Times Published: 2020/11/13 12:58:15

Students study at a library of Columbia University in New York, the United States, on Dec. 7, 2019. (Xinhua/Li Rui)

Chinese students studying at American universities expect president-elect Joe Biden would relax the tough visa policies imposed on foreign students by the Trump administration, but they remain pessimistic about their future in the US, citing the coronavirus epidemic, racism and the ongoing China-US contention.

Compared with their predecessors decades ago who believed in an "American dream," Chinese students studying in the US now reached by the Global Times seem to have different views, hopes and aspirations. The current generation of students show only cautious optimism about their future in the US. 

Policy hope

May and Chen, two Chinese students who deferred their offers from US universities due to the pandemic, have been hoping to attend classes in the US by next year, since the US presidential election. 

"I am placing all my hopes for studying in the US next year on Biden," said May, who asked her full name not be used. "Maybe Biden will resume Obama's policy? He seems to embrace openness," she said. 

Obama's former vice president's election promise included friendlier policies toward international students and working visa applicants. During the Obama administration, validity of student F visas was extended from one to five years.

Trump set a number of barriers for international students, especially Chinese, with Forbes reporting that 29 percent of working visa applications were turned down in 2020, compared to only 6 percent in 2015.

Chen has secured a spot of a filmmaking program at a school in southern California next year. "I am studying one of 'the safest majors' for the US. There is no reason for the US to reject my visa application," Chen said in a sarcastic tone, hinting at Trump's tight restrictions on Chinese studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics citing national security concerns.

Chen told the Global Times that she hopes the pandemic will be better dealt with in the future. Once the epidemic passes, Chen will be able to learn and practice filmmaking "in a real Hollywood studio" rather than discussing theories via webinars while paying the same tuition.

Paying the same high tuitions for lower-quality online courses has been a struggle for Du Yijia, too. "I am fed up with getting up at 4 am to discuss legal cases with classmates who are across the world," Du complained. 

US losing appeal

International students provide critical income to American universities, as 75 to 80 percent of fulltime graduate students in key technology fields at US universities are international students. Work visas, known as H-1B, remain the only practical way for many people to work long-term in the country, and contribute to its cutting-edge industries, say experts. 

But the document is losing attractions among some Chinese students who plan to leave the country after graduation after seeing racism, hypocrisy in US values, or simply not wanting to live through US hostility as a Chinese. 

A Chinese PhD candidate in North Carolina, who gave his first name Xing, told the Global Times that he has not returned to China since 2018 because otherwise he will have to renew his good-for-one-year visa and wait for uncertain time for  his sensitive major. 

"Visa policy might relax and harassment targeting Chinese at Customs may reduce, but we cannot return to the golden age of international education," Xing said, noting sensitive majors will still face strict scrutiny and xenophobia in the US. 

He plans to do some post-doc research in Europe. As there have not been many labs in China doing research in Xing's field, he may not return to China after graduation. 

Xing will choose Europe also because he wants to escape US hostility and China-US confrontation. "I do not know much about international politics… but I want to talk and work with people from other regions and understand what they are thinking about."

Another student surnamed Wang, a recent PhD graduate in computer science, is working for a gaming company in California under OPT (Optional Practical Training), a policy that allows students with F-1 status to work in the US for 12 to 36 months. Wang closely followed the election but has only limited enthusiasm compared with his American colleagues. 

"I am still uncertain about applying for H1B three years later when my OPT expires, although I know getting one would be easier," he said, explaining that dropping international graduates (due to current pandemic and visa barriers) and low employment rate amid economic plight mean fewer applicants.

Wang may settle down in Canada or return to China in the future after getting some work experience.

The local colleagues of Wang supported Biden in part because of the TikTok ban of the current administration goes against their values, but he saw hegemony behind the US' free market promises. 

Earning a decent salary in Silicon Valley still represents a  facet of the "American dream," but in conversation with the Global Times, many Chinese expressed concerns about lasting China-US confrontation, dim economic outlook, racism, violence and crimes in the country - dark under the "beacon of freedom."

Chinese students and new graduates shared some moments that bit by bit drive them away from the US, such as loneliness and insecurity when they are shouted at with racist words, fear of shifting US policy (like a sudden ban on WeChat), or the smell of marijuana on the way to school. 

Who has plan B? 

Education industry insiders have also felt the trend that students are choosing places other than the US. 

Hannah He, a Shanghai-based education consultant, told the Global Times that although the US is still a hot destination for studies considering its advancement in many disciplines, more applicants are eying on the UK, the European continent, Japan, Singapore and Australia. 

A staff member from a Beijing-based overseas study consulting company told the Global Times on condition of anonymity that many of their consultants who focus on US universities have transferred to UK schools. "They usually work overtime in application seasons but now they are serving applicants of other regions to fill up their working hours."

The immediate reason is the COVID-19 but the deteriorating China-US relations in the past year have also left a negative impression of the US and its institutes on Chinese students and parents, said the employee. "Many believe even if Biden takes office, he cannot change the pandemic situation in a short time, nor does he have the intention or capability to improve China-US relations soon." 

American universities are also having a hard time and the Global Times learned from multiple sources that some schools have to suspended their enrollment of PhD students or even recruitment of lecturers for a lack of funding. 

These institutes embrace Biden as a future president: even in red states like Texas and North Carolina, counties where universities and colleges locate are blue. The reasons include liberal values but there is also real interest - Biden would increase investment in higher education and bring international students back to American campuses.  

These schools care about international students, especially the more than 300,000 from China, who account for one third of international students in the US. They constitute a diverse and dynamic community and many of these students are pursuing degrees at their own expense, and are cash cows for the US schools.

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