It started 40 years ago when, optimistically ending decades of mutual estrangement, the United States and China agreed to something once unthinkable: A few students from communist China would come to the capitalist-imperialist United States to attend universities.
The clear aim of Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, was for his country to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to realize his ambitious plan for economic growth and technological modernization.
But American officials had a not-so-secret ulterior motive too: Their expectation was that by studying in America, Chinese students, future leaders of their country, would become a powerful force for democratic political change in China.
It is increasingly obvious that things haven’t worked out that way, as China has veered toward authoritarianism under Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping.
This is the case even though the program begun in 1978 has exploded into what surely must be one of history's largest transfers of education and knowledge from one country to another. There are now more than 350,000 Chinese students studying at American colleges; hundreds of thousands of others have gotten their degrees and returned home. More than one-third of all foreign students in the U.S. are from China.
This has been good in many ways, not least in the hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition fees that Chinese students have paid into the coffers of American higher education, adding to at least the look of diversity on elite American campuses. For its part, China has gotten what Deng wanted, a great deal of the knowledge that, in a great historical irony, has helped it to become a potent strategic rival to the United States.
But the American hope that hundreds of thousands of American-educated Chinese students would be a force for political change in their native land?
“That has not happened,” a junior psychology major from Beijing at Columbia University told me, expressing a commonly held view.
“We come here out of our individual interests,” he said. “Our families want us to be here, and we want to be here. So what we get from our American education is for our own use. We're going to go back to China to find jobs for ourselves.”
Other students said similar things explaining their reasons for concentrating on their studies and not thinking much about the political situation back home. But there are other reasons.
One is that many Chinese students are actually quite proud of their country's achievements and do not see themselves as pro-democracy dissidents. Another is that their encounter with American life does not always make them think that the U.S. is a model for China. Third, even for those students who favor political change in China, the harsh and sure penalties for advocating it are powerful disincentives against speaking out.
In the view of some, these students remain quiescent because China's system of surveillance and social control extends all the way to American classrooms and dormitories. As one China expert, who preferred not to be identified, put it: “As soon as there are two Chinese students, they tend to stay quiet, because you never know who the spook is.”
The result, briefly put, is that while China has gotten what it wanted from the American knowledge industry, the United States has not, at least not in its 40-year-old aim to serve as a sort of political inspiration for a westernized Chinese elite.
“You don't see the scales falling from people's eyes,” said Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University professor of political science who has had numerous Chinese students in his classroom. “You see people who are learning and exploring, but they're not changing fundamentally.”
This does not mean that studying in the United States has no effect on the outlooks of Chinese students, or that some of them don't acquire ideas that might at some time in the future promote democratic change. It is not difficult to find students bothered by China's authoritarian turn, including Xi's recent abolition of term limits, and who appreciate the opportunity they have in the United States to read books and discuss ideas that would be banned in China.
At Columbia, for example, about 30 Chinese students are taking a course on Contemporary Chinese Politics, being taught in Chinese by a well-known dissident, Zhang Boshu, who would almost surely be imprisoned were he to go back to China.
“I have changed my views,” a grad student taking that course told me. She spoke of understanding her own country's past in a more truthful way than would be allowed back home. “Many of my friends, the people around me feel the way I do,” she said.
But she also said that they are a minority. Most students don't think much about bringing about a more democratic China, in part because they don't think things are so bad at home, and in part because they see little hope -- in the context of China's surveillance state -- of bringing about meaningful change.
“Most people feel, 'What can you do?'” the student said. “And if you can do nothing, you just do what you can for your own life.”
“Everybody lives in their own small world,” another graduate student said. “They're well educated. They have decent jobs. They're tech managers at big companies like Alibaba or at big international firms. So they feel they're doing well.”
There are few large-sample studies of the attitudes of Chinese students, but those that have been done indicate what might seem to be a paradoxical result. A large number of Chinese feel more positive about the United States after they've been in the country for a while. But they also feel more positive about China, more patriotic and proud of the country's accomplishments.
One study, involving 960 Chinese students at Big Ten universities, was done in 2016 by the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. The survey found that 43 percent of the students believe that China's current political system was the most suitable system for their nation; 27 percent disagreed and 30 percent were neutral on the question. Asked to evaluate this statement, “Democracy may have problems but it's better than any other form of government,” 37 percent agreed, 28 disagreed, and 35 percent were neutral.
Of course, there are many different kinds of Chinese students. Some are “princelings” from the families of China’s communist power elite. Some are Chinese diplomats who will use what they learn – including English and lessons about how the rest of the world works – as they help to advance China's global interests. There are technocrats clearly loyal to the regime. The newly appointed head of China's central bank, for example, is Yi Gang, who got his PhD from the University of Illinois and taught economics at Indiana University for eight years. A leading member of China's all-powerful Politburo, Liu He, has a master's in public administration from Harvard.
In 1985, Xi Jinping himself, a mid-level provincial official at the time, spent two weeks on an agricultural fact-finding mission in Iowa. His daughter went to Harvard, though nobody seems to know exactly what she did, or learned, there. In any case, these experiences have not stopped Xi from essentially banning “Western values” in China.
The large majority of China's students are private people, paying tuition out of their families' pockets and, like most American students, getting their educations to get ahead. They might admire American-style freedom of speech, and they might even want more freedom in China, but that doesn't turn them into opponents of their own government.
“China is where the future is,” the psychology major said. “Some things are uncertain, but I still want to go back.”
The students, like everybody from China, are also well aware of the harsh treatment imposed by their nation's security police on anyone brave or foolhardy enough to publicly promote the idea of a multiparty democracy for China. That was essentially the crime of China's most famous dissident, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in a Chinese prison last year.
“If I didn't go to school here, I wouldn't appreciate the importance of freedom of expression,” one Chinese student told me. Like other students from his country, he expressed concern with Xi's aggrandizement of power. “But on the bright side,” he said, “it's going to help China with political stability. China needs a powerful central government.”
What Chinese students in the United States feel, in other words, seems similar to what the new and large middle class in China itself feels about the government. It's a mixture of pride and fear—pride in the country's achievements, a feeling that the government has done a good job, and fear of the consequences of dissent.
A 2015 survey of 140 Chinese students by Foreign Policy magazine found a result similar to that of the Purdue study. Chinese students say that their experience in America is “transformative,” as the magazine summed it up. It has made them more open-minded, less doctrinaire, more appreciative of Western freedoms, many respondents said. But these same respondents nonetheless remained generally supportive of their government's policies back home.
And, after all, why not? Chinese students like freedom of speech, but living in the United States also makes them familiar with the problems of democracy – the political gridlock, the sensationalist press, what often looks to them like the wastefulness and the unseemliness of the ongoing political contest. They've also compared America's crumbling infrastructure, its rumbling, often-late trains and subways, with the efficient, brand new high-speed transportation networks that have been built in China, and in their eyes, this makes China look better than it did to them before they arrived in the United States. Several respondents in the Foreign Policy survey cited among the lessons learned in America that no country is perfect, no country is without problems, and neither China nor the United States is different in that respect.
And, not surprisingly, China's rise to great power status evokes patriotic pride in many Chinese, including those studying abroad.
“They see that things are pretty good,” Nathan said. “They see their country becoming the greatest power in the world.”
Subtly or not, the Chinese government tries to see to it that such attitudes prevail. It is reported to support to a network of 150 or so Chinese Scholars and Students Associations around the United States that remind students that they will be noticed if they visibly step out of line. Last year, Chinese students at the University of California-San Diego vociferously protested an invitation to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan whom China regards as a “splittist,” or secessionist, to speak at the university commencement. The CSSA, according to press reports, spurred the protest. More generally, the New York Times reported, the CSSAs “have worked in tandem with Beijing to promote a pro-Chinese agenda and tamp down anti-Chinese speech on western campuses.”
And certainly China's government puts out plenty of signals that it expects students abroad, as the boilerplate puts it, to “always follow the party.” Two years ago, the Chinese Ministry of Education called on officials to ensure that students abroad become “a positive patriotic energy” and to “build a multidimensional contact network linking home and abroad.”
An investigation of the CSSAs by Foreign Policy magazine revealed that they generally receive funding from the Chinese Embassy or consulates in the U.S., and that many of them acknowledge being under the “guidance” or “leadership” of the government.
Some experts say that worries about the CSSAs are overblown. “My impression is that CSSA's are mainly about picking up new students from airports, maintaining a list serve with housing and moving sale information, and organizing (often lackluster) holiday events,” Haifeng Huang, a political scientist at the University of California-Merced, who has researched Chinese students, said in an email message. “I'm not aware of CSSA surveillance of students.” Nor did any of the students interviewed for this article know of any surveillance, or express any worries that they are being monitored. They tended to see the CSSA in innocuous terms and not as an important part of their lives.
Still, if Chinese students are mounting officially approved protests against the Dalai Lama, what Chinese student wouldn't feel pressure to keep quiet if they have different opinions? It would seem almost self-evident, given the harshness of political repression in China, that Chinese students in this country would be wary of openly criticizing the Communist Party, if they felt an inclination to do so.
“Your parents will tell you, 'Don't put any dissenting views on social media platforms,’” one student at Columbia told me. “I only talk to people with similar points of view or backgrounds.”
Should the student exchange with China be seen in the same way that trade is rapidly coming to be seen – as part of an unbalanced relationship in which China has gained while the United States has lost? Certainly, the Trump administration has identified China as a major economic rival that has gotten much more out of its relationship with the U.S. than the U.S. has gotten, though the issue of the students does not seem to have drawn particular attention. One reason may be the financial benefit to the universities that these students provide, though there may be a downside to that reliance. China does not hesitate to apply economic pressure against countries and companies that take positions or actions that Beijing opposes – like inviting the Dalai Lama to speak at a commencement.
In fact, UC-San Diego did not, despite the CSSA-led protests, cancel the speech. But there was a clear message to other institutions in the incident: that China could cut off the flow of students and therefore the money to any school that might invite the Dalai Lama in the future, or that undertake other activities that the Chinese Communist Party opposes. Even in the absence of clear evidence that pressures are actually being applied, some American faculty certainly worry that their economic dependence on China leaves them vulnerable to that possibility.
Still, to meet the bright, hard-working, reasonable and engaging students from China who are present at just about every American institution of higher learning is to want to welcome them and to hope that they continue to come. China is complicated. Given the tightness of controls over the media, the internet, and the education system, it is impossible to know how strong the underground yearning for political change might be.
Twenty-nine years ago that hidden yearning burst into the open in the student-led pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Inside China today, all information about that event, and especially its bloody suppression by China's army, is strictly prohibited.
But in the United States, Chinese students can, and do, acquire the knowledge forbidden to them at home, and in the long run, that can't be a bad thing.