Do Years Studying in America Change Chinese Hearts and Minds?

Do Years Studying in America Change Chinese Hearts and Minds?

Over the past decade, students from China — the world’s largest Communist country and America’s chief geopolitical rival — have flooded into U.S. universities. In 2014, according to the Institute for International Education (IIE), over 304,000 Chinese were studying at American colleges, almost one-third of the total international student population. The influx is notable for its sheer numbers alone. But set against the backdrop of official Chinese rhetoric increasingly critical of Western values, the phenomenon is even more remarkable.

The appearance, at least, of a growing schism between the two nations raises the question of what exactly happens to the worldview of a Chinese person who studies in today’s United States. Do the broad freedoms of information, assembly, and religion of which the United States is so proud open students’ eyes to new ideas and modes of thinking? Or, as some have reported, do Chinese students stick perhaps too tightly together, forming insular communities that sustain their old habits and worldviews until they are ready to return home?

A Foreign Policy investigation suggests that the reality of Chinese student life in the United States defies both of these narratives. Chinese students in the United States learn much from the contrasts between America’s education system, media, and social and intellectual life and those they find at home. And they often emerge with more admiration for the United States as a result. But they also gain more respect for the enormity of the task involved in running China — and learn that America’s streets aren’t exactly paved with gold.

China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

Ninety-four women and 92 men participated in an online, bilingual FP survey; the only requirement was that respondents be Chinese nationals who had studied in the United States at an institution of higher education at some point in their lives. The vast majority were between 18 and 29 years old, most in their late teens or early 20s. The most represented institutions, in declining order, were the University of California, Berkeley; Indiana University, Bloomington; University of Washington; Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania; and Kansas State University. Over 81 percent of respondents said they were the first in their families to study abroad.

Observers of the massive influx of Chinese students into the United States often wonder aloud whether time in the United States — making American friends, visiting American towns and cities, and seeing free-wheeling U.S. academics and politics in action — enhances their views of a country that’s often bashed in Chinese state media but also often the object of considerable envy. The answer, generally speaking, is yes (hover over any graphic to see percentages):


For over 60 percent of those surveyed, study in the United States made their view of the United States more positive, with 23 percent reporting a negative turn and the rest reporting no change. At first blush, that data might suggest an embrace of American values. Indeed, several commenters underwent marked personal transformations; one “found my true faith in Christianity,” while another described herself as “more ambitious and independent” after studying abroad. Many wrote they were more creative and open-minded than they might have been if they had stayed home. And the presence of more open (and thus more believable) media helped; as one wrote, “The openness of the Internet makes a lot of students, including me, have more realistic realizations [sic] on the Chinese government.”

But for most respondents, increased esteem for the United States did not occur to the detriment of China’s image. In fact, the opposite was true:


For 55 percent of respondents, their view of China improved after time in the United States; just 22 percent reported a more negative view of their home country.

This pair of results — a more positive view of both America and China — does not come as a surprise to Haifeng Huang, a professor of political science at University of California, Merced, who has studied the effects of life abroad on Chinese student views. Huang told FP that although the results may look “counterintuitive,” they are not surprising. When students spend time stateside, he explained, “abstract understandings” of U.S. social and expressive freedom turn into concrete experience, heightening positive feelings toward America. But among some Chinese, “overly romantic perceptions” of the United States and a sense of “self-loathing” toward Chinese identity are reversed when students see that “not everything in foreign lands is as shiny as they had imagined.” In addition, said Huang, “the free information flow and exchange of diverse perspectives and opinions may lead some of them to appreciate the difficulty of governing a large and complex country, whereas in China they may suspect the government is always lying.”

By all indications, Chinese students’ encounter with freedom of information often proved profound. China’s so-called great firewall — a massive online censorship apparatus that makes it difficult for citizens to access major American news and social media sites including the New York Times, Facebook, and Twitter — exercised a significant impact on the students, according to the FP survey. Although Chinese authorities implicitly insist their decision to maintain the firewall is an internal matter — Internet czar Lu Wei has not acknowledged the firewall, but speaks frequently of “Internet sovereignty” — survey results suggest that the effects of China’s censorship regime do not stop at Chinese borders. Fully 90 percent of respondents said that China’s so-called Great Firewall affected their life, with 34 percent saying it affected their life “a lot.”


How, exactly? In a follow up question, 54 percent said censorship most affected their “study or work.” For 34 percent, it was their social lives. For some students, the specter of censorship even seemed to influence important life decisions; several respondents indicated that censorship in China was a major factor in their desire to remain in the United States after graduation.

Chinese universities may be working hard to achieve international recognition, but American-style education is still the greatest draw for Chinese students considering study abroad — 78 percent said they studied stateside primarily because of the “quality of education,” with 15 percent citing “future job prospects” as the main driver:


Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at IIE, told FP that Chinese parents trust the United States to provide their children with the most globally competitive education. “The Chinese middle class and upper class have lots of disposable income, and one child… in which to invest that income, and they’re looking around for the best place in the world to get that education,” said Blumenthal. “When they look around the world, they find the American education system particularly attractive.”

The FP survey was conducted online, indicating that respondents self-selected. Yet Huang said that FP’s findings are “very valuable, given the importance of the issue and the paucity of existing studies.” While Huang stressed that the sample size is small and may not be representative of overall overseas Chinese student opinion, he said the findings are “in line with the existing research and what many within the Chinese students community know.”

For the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students that comprise that community, years spent in the United States immerse them in a new environment, challenge their understanding of the world, and provide them with new skill sets. And, willing or not, their presence and experiences stateside are often viewed through the prism of U.S.-China rivalry. But for many Chinese students, it’s not that simple. “I like the U.S.,” one survey respondent wrote. “But I love China; it’s my motherland.”

Graphics by C.K. Hickey

Image credit: AFP/Getty Images