End of an era? A history of Chinese students in America

Society & Culture

The Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric against Chinese students is not unprecedented. But history tells us the U.S. will suffer for it.

As the coronavirus pandemic rips through the United States, the country’s already abysmal relationship with China sinks to new lows daily. To deflect blame, leaders in both countries have ramped up nationalistic rhetoric and lobbed unsubstantiated conspiracy theories at one another, catching everyday people in the crossfire.

Chinese students in the U.S., in particular, find themselves vulnerable. “It is a Chinese virus and you are 100% to blame,” wrote one Notre Dame student in a Facebook post, echoing the phrase some political leaders and pundits have insisted on to describe COVID-19. “Go the f*** home. Stop eating bats (and cats, and infectiously diseased animals).”




In late April, Republican Senator Tom Cotton suggested that one way to seize on the American public’s record 66 percent unfavorable view of China could be to “stop allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to come to our universities, many of which are the children of Communist Party officials.” He later added, “It’s a scandal to me that we have trained so many of the Chinese Communist Party’s brightest minds to go back to China, to compete for our jobs, to take our business and ultimately to steal our property and design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people.”

Cotton’s remarks didn’t come out of nowhere. For years, certain Washington politicians have been pushing for a harder line on China for economic misconduct, undue political influence, and espionage. Cotton is only the latest in a string of high-ranking leaders to paint Chinese students as conduits of these threats.

While the annual growth rate of Chinese students in the U.S. has been slowing, from the 23 percent it was averaging from 2007 to 2013 to a tepid 1.7 percent last year, at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, a record 369,000 Chinese students were enrolled in American colleges.

But the pandemic could prove a crippling blow, both logistically and politically. While it won’t spell the end of Chinese students studying in the U.S., it will likely significantly alter the landscape. Chinese students who remain in the country could also find their lives increasingly uncomfortable.

The unfolding situation has many echoes of the past. At several points in the 170 years Chinese students have been studying in the United States, political winds have blown waves of them to American shores with excitement and support from leaders on both sides. But winds inevitably shift. While the specific circumstances have changed, many themes from these past episodes remain consistent and may offer some clue as to what’s ahead.



The first wave

The very first wave of Chinese students in America arrived in 1872 with the “Chinese Educational Mission,” or CEM. After a series of humiliating military defeats by technologically superior foreign armies, China’s Qing Dynasty rulers realized they would have to learn from the West in order to catch up to it. It sent 120 boys aged 10 to 15 to spend 15 years learning skills they could bring home to build up China’s archaic infrastructure and military.

The boys received a hero’s send-off as they sailed out from Shanghai, and were warmly welcomed when they arrived in San Francisco and to their schools across the American northeast. The Burlingame Treaty that had been ratified three years earlier allowed citizens of both countries reciprocal free immigration rights and access to one another’s educational institutions. Amid post-Civil War labor shortages, the U.S. sought to ensure a steady flow of Chinese laborers for construction projects like the Transcontinental Railroad, as well as secure its own Christian missionaries free rein in China.

But the wave would be short-lived. Many of the boys started picking up American habits, adopting Western names and fashion, and some even converted to Christianity. In spite of regular lessons in Chinese language and Confucian classics with Chinese teachers intended to keep them grounded in their home culture, many became rebellious and independent in ways uncommon back home. Rather than seeing the shift in thinking as a desirable challenge to rigid traditional thinking, Qing leaders saw it as a threat.

American political winds were beginning to shift too in the years leading up to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In the mid-1870s, a series of economic crises saw banks fail, the stock market crash, businesses close en masse, and labor demands dry up. Chinese workers that had been sought after just a few years earlier now represented an economic threat. Demagogues like labor leader Denis Kearney would speak to audiences of thousands, blaming the Chinese for economic woes and even encouraging violence against them. “We intend to try and vote the Chinamen out, to frighten him out, and if this won’t do it, to kill him out,” he proclaimed in one speech. Some political leaders were all-too-willing to ride these xenophobic currents to rally support, leaving Chinese at the receiving end of racist hostility, discriminatory laws, and mob violence.

While the CEM boys were shielded from the worst of the intimidation, violence, and lynchings that West Coast compatriots endured, they did experience routine racism ranging from heckles to beatings. Institutional discrimination would also catch up to them. Some tried to enroll at West Point and the Naval Academy, as Japanese students had done during this period, which should have been allowed under the Burlingame Treaty. But the U.S. State Department said simply: “There is no room provided for Chinese students.”

The CEM was ultimately cancelled in 1881, and the students were all recalled to China just nine years into the intended 15. As they prepared to leave, one Detroit newspaper mocked the “pig-tailed students,” saying they clamored to return to their national dish of “rat food.”

Rumors spread back in China that the boys were “denationalized” traitors, and when their ship arrived in Shanghai, crowds mocked their Western clothing and heckled them as “foreign devils.” They were then promptly detained and interrogated for several days. As far as U.S.-China bridge-builders go, they would hardly be the last to find themselves as objects of suspicion and derision in both the U.S. and China.



The second wave

As the 19th century drew to a close, China continued to endure thrashings by stronger foreign militaries. In 1900, eight foreign nations, including the United States, formed an alliance to put down the Boxer Rebellion that had seen the indiscriminate killing of foreigners and Chinese Christians across northern China. After brutally suppressing the uprising, the eight nations imposed steep financial indemnities on China.

In the aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act’s indefinite renewal in 1904, there were boycotts of the United States in China, and relations between the two countries sank. Some American intellectuals feared they were losing an opportunity, so University of Illinois president Edmund James wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt suggesting the U.S. use excess Boxer funds to establish a scholarship for Chinese students. “If the United States had succeeded 35 years ago [with the CEM] in turning the current of Chinese students to this country, and had succeeded in keeping that current large, we should today be controlling the development of China in that most satisfactory and subtle of all ways — through the intellectual and spiritual domination of its leaders,” he wrote.

Roosevelt agreed, and pushed it through Congress with little resistance. Even as the U.S. continued to engage in harsh systematic discrimination against Chinese from both the grassroots and government level, the doors were thrown open to the country’s students. The Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program began bringing Chinese students to the United States in 1909 and kicked off the second “wave” — one that would end even more tragically than the first.


“America is not so good a friend to China as I had mistakenly thought, because in no part of the Earth are the Chinese so ill-treated and humiliated as in America.”


The second-wave students tended to be older than those from the Chinese Educational Mission, making assimilation to American life more difficult. And “Progressive Era” America didn’t necessarily yield progressive attitudes from Americans. Stereotypes that Chinese ate rats and opium like candy were widespread, as were beliefs that they must be the sons of princes to be studying abroad. With the Chinese Exclusion Act still in full force, some Chinese students endured much more harrowing racist encounters, often straight from government organs. In Cleveland in 1925, when a man was killed amid a violent war between rival Chinese triads, more than 600 Chinese men and boys in the city, including students, were indiscriminately arrested, interrogated, and thrown in overcrowded cells. “Every Chinaman we can get our hands on is going to stay in jail until the slayers are turned up,” said Cleveland’s safety director.

Dehumanizing encounters with authority like these undermined the image of America as a free and democratic society ruled by law, which many students had imagined it to be. Fèi Qǐhè 费起鹤, a Chinese student who had studied at Oberlin and Yale, wrote that he’d developed a great affection for the United States while studying at a missionary school back home, but after six years of actually living in the country, “my attitude toward America has totally changed.” Writing in The Outlook, a weekly New York magazine, he recalled mistreatment he had suffered while trying to enter the country. “America is not so good a friend to China as I had mistakenly thought, because in no part of the Earth are the Chinese so ill-treated and humiliated as in America.”

Mamie-Louise Leung, a Chinese American student at USC, noted that this sort of disillusionment was all too common. “Many of our Chinese students bring with them the highest expectations of goodwill and fellowship,” she wrote in 1924. “Rebuffs, snubs, and rudeness soon change their feelings to great bitterness against Americans.”

Time in America that was supposed to improve U.S.-China relations and create a generation of more pro-American Chinese leaders was, in fact, fostering nationalistic sentiment.

Around this period, many schools aggressively courted the growing numbers of Chinese students. In 1914, the University of Michigan advertised itself in a Chinese student publication as boasting “a cosmopolitan student body — 50 students from China — a college town — expenses low.” Some schools were even known to grade more leniently to attract these students. But by the 1920s, several schools with large Chinese student populations found that, rather than integrating with American classmates, many Chinese simply retreated into all-Chinese enclaves.



The third wave

Many students did become enamored with American social and political ideas, though, and brought them back to China. They helped fuel the “New Culture Movement” in the late 1910s that sought an overhaul of China’s traditional Confucian order with more democratic and egalitarian values. Others returned home to attain positions in education, finance, medicine, industry, and foreign affairs, where their U.S.-learned skills helped improve China in both practical and abstract ways from the bottom-up.

But by the late 1920s and 1930s, returnees who harbored liberal values became politically alienated. As the Kuomintang (KMT) government under Chiang Kai-shek began asserting a harsher authoritarian and nationalistic hand, returnees who sought liberal reforms were pushed aside. Increasingly disillusioned by the KMT, some Chinese students abroad began drifting closer to the communist cause gaining traction at home. The U.S. stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression disillusioned many of these students with capitalism, and pushed them further toward the Communist Party. Others, though, were wary of both sides, seeing the communist cause as a threat to liberalism and modernization.

When the communists ultimately emerged victorious from the Chinese civil war in 1949, they had no tolerance for American influence, and the flow of students to the U.S. was cut off almost entirely. The “second wave” of Chinese students to America — which had seen some 17,000 come to the country throughout its 40 years — ended just as abruptly as the first.

The students who stayed in the U.S. quickly felt the shift in political winds. Regardless of their political sympathies, the day China became communist was the day that all of its students abroad did as well, in many American eyes. With China’s 1950 entry into the Korean War, Chinese students in the U.S. came under even greater suspicion.

Plainclothes FBI agents were known to monitor their daily activities on some campuses, while most engineering and science graduates had trouble finding jobs where they could receive security clearances. Many also complained about being turned down from housing simply because they were Chinese. In 1951, 11 Chinese students were pulled off the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana campus in handcuffs and jailed. Their supposed crime: being members of a Chinese student Christian group that was thought, without substantiation, to have been infiltrated by communists.

Perhaps the most famous Chinese victim of the Red Scare was Qián Xuésēn 钱学森, a renowned rocket scientist and Caltech professor who had first come to the U.S. to study at MIT on a Boxer indemnity scholarship. During World War II, he made critical contributions to American jet propulsion research and the Manhattan Project, and later applied to become a U.S. citizen. But in 1950, his security clearance was revoked. Unable to continue his research, he decided to return to China, but before he could, he was arrested, detained, and effectively placed under house arrest for five years under dubious suspicions of communist sympathies and harboring a threat to U.S. national security. In 1955, he was finally allowed to return home, where he became a leading figure in China’s rocket, nuclear, and space development programs. Looking back on the episode, U.S. Navy Secretary Dan A. Kimball said, “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a communist than I was, and we forced him to go.” Shortly after returning to China, Qian wrote of his experience, saying the American government reminded him of an old Chinese adage: “Speak words of justice and moral integrity; harbor the intents of thieves and whores.”


“[Isn’t it] a little dangerous to have so many Chinese communists on campus?” one FBI agent reportedly asked a Wisconsin teacher in 1979. “What do you think the Chinese are?” the teacher replied. “Even a communist is not a monster, he is a person.”


For all the injustices Chinese in America faced, those who returned home could be treated even more cruelly. Returnees were particularly vulnerable to fanatical campaigns during the Anti-Rightist Movement and Cultural Revolution, with many accused of being spies or capitalist roaders — their American diplomas used as evidence. Often they were interrogated, jailed, publicly humiliated, beaten, tortured, murdered, or driven to suicide.

But political winds would eventually shift yet again. The United States soured on McCarthyism by the late 1950s, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 finally ended restrictive quotas on Asian immigrants and the last remnants of Chinese exclusion. On the Chinese side, Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 died in 1976 and left behind a country thirsty for practical reform over ideological dogma. It got it under Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平, who launched Reform and Opening Up in 1978 to transition China toward a more modern market economy and reintegrate it with the international community. “To send students abroad to study is also a concrete step [in modernization],” Deng said.

American-educated Chinese who had managed to survive Mao’s reign were rehabilitated and conscripted for the new modernization drive. Caltech class of 1928 graduate Zhōu Péiyuán 周培源 was pulled from the shadows and made president of Peking University in 1978, where he began signing educational exchange agreements with American universities before the two governments even agreed to allow them. Later that year, President Jimmy Carter received a 3 a.m. call from an adviser in China relaying a request from Deng to send 5,000 students to America. “Tell him to send 100,000,” a groggy Carter snapped before hanging up the phone.

There were concerns among China’s leadership that study abroad might “Westernize” and pollute young minds. But Deng reportedly said that even if 10 percent of those who left didn’t return to China, the 90 percent who did would still make the initiative worthwhile.

Five days before the U.S. and China officially restored diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979, a group of 52 Chinese students boarded a plane to America and kicked off the “third wave.”

By the end of 1979, there were 2,000 Chinese students in the U.S. By late 1981, there were 6,500 — a historic high less than three years into the wave. These students encountered many of the same issues previous cohorts had — frustrations with American ignorance, racism, and difficult linguistic, academic, and cultural adjustments. And the Cold War hadn’t ended, to boot. With the influx of Chinese students, FBI agents again stepped up efforts to monitor them, and even began approaching their professors to gather information. “[Isn’t it] a little dangerous to have so many Chinese communists on campus?” one agent reportedly asked a Wisconsin teacher in 1979. “What do you think the Chinese are?” the teacher replied. “Even a communist is not a monster, he is a person.”

The U.S. was perhaps the most developed country in the world at this time, offering an endless array of consumer goods, material comforts, and personal choice. The China that the students had grown up in, conversely, had experienced one of the most chaotic and repressive episodes in its history. Even as it embraced reforms, it remained poor and draconian, with a per capita GDP of less than $200 and personal restrictions on everything from travel to sexual activity. As student exchanges went on throughout the 1980s, Chinese leaders began to realize that substantially more students than they had expected weren’t coming back.

By 1988, there were some 28,000 Chinese students in the United States, and the Chinese government became concerned. It tried to limit the number of students going abroad (particularly to the U.S.), the amount of time they could stay, and who would be allowed to go. But this may have had precisely the opposite effect of what it intended, pushing many disillusioned Chinese youth to confront China’s political atmosphere rather than escape it.

After the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, the Chinese government came to view returnees as an even greater threat to political stability. For a brief period, Chinese diplomats were reportedly even instructed to encourage study-abroad students not to return.

Four months after the June 4 massacre, thousands mobbed a testing center when it opened registrations for the TOEFL exam required to apply for U.S. universities. A survey of Peking University students in 1990 asked why they thought people study abroad. Fifty-six percent answered that “since there is no future in China, it is the only alternative.”

To protect Chinese students in the U.S. from possible political persecution, President George H.W. Bush issued an executive order allowing them to stay, which was later solidified by Congress with the Chinese Student Protection Act. It allowed all Chinese citizens who had come before April 12, 1990 to obtain permanent residency, and more than 50,000 did so. Many would never return to the homeland they had lost all hope for. Within one year, the number of Chinese doctoral graduates who planned to stay in the U.S. tripled. As one study put it, the June 4 massacre “significantly transformed [China’s] ‘brain drain’ into a veritable flood.” In 1992, Deng Xiaoping revised his earlier assessment to a more modest one, saying that if even half of the overseas students didn’t return, the remaining half would still help develop the country.



The fourth wave

A few years after the Tiananmen crackdown, against all expectations, China resumed its reform and modernization drive with force by further privatizing its economy and opening up to real foreign investment and competition. Overseas returnees played a key role in that drive, bringing in new skills and starting companies that would help make China an economic powerhouse.

The number of Chinese students in the U.S. surpassed 63,000 in 2001. That year, China joined the World Trade Organization and integrated further with the world economy, unleashing years of rapid double-digit economic growth that gave millions of Chinese comfortable middle-class lives and made some exceedingly wealthy.

As an expensive American education came within reach of more Chinese families, it became a national obsession. Eager for their kids to escape China’s soul-crushing college entrance exam and rigid education system, Chinese parents were happy to pony up for a prestigious American degree. Unlike the previous waves, which had been mostly government-funded, Chinese families were now largely self-funding their children’s foreign study.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, tighter restrictions were placed on international student visas, and the number of Chinese students in the U.S. declined for a period. But when restrictions were loosened in 2005, it unleashed what might be considered a “fourth wave.” In just one year between 2006 and 2007, their numbers leapt from 67,000 to 81,000. Five years later, they numbered 235,000.

While the massive flow of students between China and the U.S. promised to bring the countries closer, there was one drawback: American universities became addicted to these students for the wrong reasons. Ongoing state budget cuts for higher education were already forcing many schools to find new sources of revenue before the 2008 global financial crisis made a bad situation much worse. Over the following five years, per-student state funding for higher education dropped in 48 of the 50 states. Thirty-six of those states saw drops of more than 20 percent.

The rapidly growing ranks of Chinese students willing to pay full-sticker-price tuition came at just the right time, and some colleges admitted too many too quickly. One school — Dickinson State University in North Dakota — admitted hundreds of foreign (mostly Chinese) students who lacked appropriate credentials, then granted them degrees despite them having not completed the required coursework, a state audit found.

Although most schools didn’t resort to such blatantly unethical measures, the case reflected a growing problem. Universities found that scores of students they had admitted were linguistically and academically unprepared for American education, and that admissions fraud encompassed an entire cottage industry in China. Schools also lacked the staff and know-how to accommodate the sudden influx of international students and ensure their academic success. And some professors were unable or unwilling to adapt their teaching methods for students coming from a very different educational background.

Then there were the American students, not all of whom were particularly welcoming to their new classmates. Some at the University of California, Irvine joked that the school’s acronym, UCI, had come to mean the “University of Chinese Immigrants” or the “University of Caucasian Isolation.” In 2011, a white UCLA student uploaded what became an infamous YouTube video titled “Asians in the Library,” where she complained of the “hordes of Asians” overwhelming the school and talking loudly on their phones. “Ohhhhh…ching chong ting tong ling long…ohhhhhhh,” she said.


Then came Trump, who campaigned on warnings that China was “raping” the United States. He launched a trade war in July 2018, and at one point reportedly said, “Almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.”


A more nationalistic education instituted in China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, coupled with the country’s rise to a more prosperous and powerful position in the global pecking order, also left many Chinese students less impressed with the U.S. than their 1980s predecessors. American military adventurism, incidents like the 1999 bombing of China’s Belgrade Embassy, and the 2008 financial crisis only underscored its shortcomings.

More were emboldened to speak up — and it sometimes got contentious. In one early infamous incident in 2008, “Free Tibet” protesters and Chinese counter-protesters clashed at Duke, with a mainland student who tried to mediate getting doxxed and labeled a national traitor. Similar incidents would only become more common, and intersect with long-running suspicions that Chinese students were spies.

Beijing didn’t help mitigate this perception. Around the 2011 Arab Spring, the Communist Party started signaling greater concern of “ideological infiltration” from the West, and went a step further in 2013 with the distribution of a secret internal communiqué that kicked off an ongoing nationwide ideological crackdown. A 2016 Ministry of Education document called for a network linking “the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad” in order to harness “patriotic energy” among overseas students.

Then came Trump, a man who campaigned on warnings that China was “raping” the United States. He launched a trade war in July 2018 and at one point reportedly said, “Almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.” That year, at the behest of his hardline anti-immigration adviser Stephen Miller, he even considered halting visas for all Chinese students, ostensibly over espionage concerns, with the apparent bonus that it would hurt universities with staff and students that had been critical of him.

The move never came to pass, but Trump did institute more stringent visa requirements for some graduate students, and universities have reported greater difficulties for their Chinese students entering the country. Last August, nine Arizona State University Chinese undergraduates were denied re-entry to the US for five years — mid-degree — without explanation.

Furthermore, the FBI has once again stepped up efforts to monitor Chinese university students, and Republican leaders including Marco Rubio, John Kennedy, and Tom Cotton have expressed concern at the supposed large-scale threat of Chinese student spies. Certain media quarters have amplified these fears. “There are 300,000 Chinese students now in the United States, sending all their research, patents, and proprietary information home to the Chinese communists,” proclaimed a commentary in the conservative newspaper The Washington Times. “They are embedded in our government, in our schools, in our media and entertainment industry, and in our technology. This is truly scary stuff.”



This atmosphere of suspicion has had a detrimental impact on American innovation. Chinese scientists who had planned to stay in the U.S. are now reportedly leaving in droves amid a Trump administration crackdown on researchers with ties to China through programs like Thousand Talents, a Chinese government initiative intended to lure back top scientists from the West. As a recent ProPublica investigation put it: “The U.S. government is accomplishing what Thousand Talents has struggled to do…In the name of safeguarding American science, federal agencies are driving out innovators, who will then make their discoveries and insights in China instead of the U.S.”

Now, amid the pandemic, a new drive by some Republican lawmakers seeks to suspend the ability of graduating international students to work in the United States altogether — a policy intended to shield Americans from “having to compete in such a limited job market.” According to a recent study, a policy like this would deprive the U.S. of in-demand skills and entrepreneurs, which would cause the GDP to decline further while costing native-born workers hundreds of thousands of jobs. Withholding the chance to work after graduation would also eliminate one of the major incentives for international students to study in the U.S. in the first place, encouraging them — and the nearly $45 billion they pump into the U.S. economy each year — to go elsewhere.

Regardless, international student enrollments at U.S. colleges could drop by 25 percent next school year due to coronavirus-related complications, according to one estimate, and numbers from China could be hit disproportionally hard. In a survey of college counselors in China, 87 percent said that Chinese students and parents were reconsidering their plans for studying in the U.S. Eighty-five percent said the Trump administration’s “unpredictable policies” toward Chinese students was the biggest worry, with 65 percent indicating concerns about visa denial or deportation after arrival. Reports of discrimination and racist attacks against Chinese have further led some to question the safety of studying in the U.S.

The pandemic is forcing universities to answer long-overdue questions about an economic overreliance on Chinese students. But it’s also bringing out the basest instincts among political leaders, forcing these students to confront economic protectionism, uncertainty about their future, neo-racist suspicions, and some of the uglier manifestations of American xenophobia that have never really gone away over the past two centuries. This atmosphere will only alienate the Chinese students who were most drawn to the U.S. in the first place and bolster the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist agenda.

Whether the fallout results in a short-term lull or a long-term exodus of Chinese students will likely depend on what political leaders in both countries do next. Political winds will almost certainly shift again one day, one way or another. Both countries have always recognized, eventually, the lost opportunities from inhibiting U.S.-China cross-pollination. But whether that shift happens in a matter of months, years, or decades will determine the extent of the damage. If the winds continue to blow further in the direction of mutually-exacerbating nationalism and xenophobia, Chinese students will suffer greatly for it, along with any hopes for serious bridge-building between the world’s biggest superpowers.