China has taken a much more assertive — some would say aggressive — global position in recent months as it defends itself against criticism on a host of issues, from the handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak to scrutiny of its technology companies and research ties. Stuck in the middle are its students, who may be eager to seek new experiences overseas, but may also be caught up in an increasingly fraught geopolitical situation.
In early June, the Chinese government cited “many discriminatory incidents against Asians” in its warning against study in Australia, a country with which it is also embroiled in trade and political disputes. In April, Beijing blocked its graduates from applying to universities in Taiwan, because of Covid-19 fears and what it called the “current relationship”, a common way of referring to strained relations
China is not the only one engaging in sabre-rattling. The US has threatened to expel thousands of Chinese scholars tied to military-linked universities and, most recently, blocked the Harbin Institute of Technology from access to critical engineering software and US partnerships, the Nikkei Asian Review reported on June 17.
So with the pandemic looking likely to leave China in a stronger world position having weathered the medical — and thus economic — impacts better than most nations, what do these geopolitics mean for the flows of Chinese students so crucial to so many Western university systems? Could the Chinese government ever follow through on threats to use its students as weapons in its broader conflicts?
Zhiqun Zhu, chair of the department of international relations at Bucknell University in the US and inaugural director of its China Institute, told Times Higher Education that “when relations between China and other countries go sour, these students often suffer at both ends. China may use them as a bargaining chip to achieve diplomatic goals, while foreign countries may not welcome some of them and accuse them of spying for the Chinese government”.
These tensions come amid a boom in the number of Chinese students heading overseas, which has more than doubled in a decade. In the academic year 2018-19, before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were 370,000 Chinese students in the US, 160,000 in Australia, 141,000 in Canada and 120,000 in the UK, according to figures from those countries.
Western universities have become financially dependent on tuition paid by Chinese students, sharpening the perceived threats by China over its students. Chinese student fees make up 25-30 percent of income at some top Australian universities. While that figure is lower at British universities, Chinese students are still worth an estimated £1.7 billion (Rs.16,490 crore) to the UK’s higher education sector. They also heavily subsidise public higher education in the US and Canada. The one place where mainland China has implemented an actual ban on student outflows is Taiwan, a self-governed island with a population of 23 million that Beijing considers its territory. The ban came after Taiwan shut its borders in February to everyone who was not a Taiwan resident, including mainland Chinese. It has been in essence free of Covid-19 since April.
(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education)