Cracks in the Bridge

By Andrej Mrevlje |

From the moment you, a foreigner, set foot on Chinese soil, you’ll get a palpable sensation that human life in China is different from your own. The Western ego gets lost in the ocean of less obvious individualities that have a different way of communicating. The attitude of a Western ego in China is unacceptable. It clashes with the collective conformism that is imperative for an apparently egalitarian society. In the period of Maoism, the entirety of China lived like a one single body – on an ideological level at least. From China’s early days to today, that ideology – whether ancient (Confucius) or modern (Mao) – represented unification with a strong repressive impact, both on society and on individuals. To me, this is one of the major reasons why the Chinese have so much trouble expressing their personalities. With one exception: over the centuries in the in the Chinese Empire, education has been the only social ladder – unless, of course, you were born as an emperor. It was by the virtue of knowledge that in Confucian China, one could become a scholar, a civil servant, a high official. But even in this institutionalized pursuit of education and knowledge, Chinese culture lacked disruption. This may be the reason why the traditional culture collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century, defeated by iconoclasm. But this short period of creative chaos only lasted until a new ideology, Maoism, took root.

It was therefore no surprise that, when China opened its borders 30 years ago, Chinese youth scrambled to study abroad. For the young, globalized Chinese, studying abroad was an an adventure. There was excitement in pursuing the best possible education. For their parents, sending their only child to a good American college was an investment.

For the last two decades, the number of Chinese students has been increasing constantly. But it was the exponential growth of Chinese wealth in the last 10 years that catapulted the record number of Chinese students abroad, as the Economist reports:

It is one of China’s curious contradictions that, even as the government tries to eradicate foreign influences from the country’s universities, the flood of Chinese students leaving for the West continues to rise. Over the past decade, the number of mainland Chinese students enrolled in American colleges and universities has nearly quintupled, from 62,523 in 2005 to 304,040 last year, according to the Institute of International Education. Many of these students are the sons and daughters of China’s rising elite, establishment families who can afford tuition fees of $60,000 a year for America’s top universities – and the tens of thousands of dollars needed to prepare for the transition. Even the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s president and the man driving the campaign against foreign ideas, recently studied – under a pseudonym – at Harvard University.

Correct. But what happens when these young future patrons of the world get to America? In June of last year, I wrote a story that described one aspect of the culture of Chinese students abroad.  But things have moved fast in the last 10 months.

The ever-increasing number of Chinese students in the U.S. and the increasing business ($9.8 billion last year, according to the Economist), triggered curiosity about whether this invasion of Chinese students might have an impact on American society – or at least on the Sino-American relationship. For this reason, Foreign Policy (FP) made a survey, asking Chinese students if “the 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?”

Chinese students answered positive on the question whether living in the United States changed their view of it. But at the same time, they also claim that living abroad also improved their perception of their homeland, China. The FP survey concludes that, “For the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students 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.’”

The New York Times reports on similar surveys showing:

[Many] Chinese people back their government’s views on international relations, even if they admire other aspects of American life. Research by the Pew Research Center and other institutions indicates that admiration for American enterprise, and even some American values, is often mixed with wariness, especially of the government’s intentions abroad. In the latest survey, based on polling this year, 67 percent of Chinese respondents said their country would replace, or had already replaced, the United States as the world’s leading superpower. (In Western countries, many respondents agreed.) A majority, 54 percent, of Chinese said the United States was seeking to prevent China from becoming as powerful as itself.

“When you’re the big boss, you’re certainly going to try to keep us down,” said Dong Jianyan, a software programmer in his 20s. “But when it comes to our interests, we need to be strong.. For example, on territorial issues, we need to be very firm.”

According to these surveys, Chinese students no longer represent bridges of future friendship and collaboration between the two countries. About 10 years ago, Europe and America were still competing over who would get more Chinese students and thus secure future business with the Asian giant. Today, with tensions growing, the construction of bridges is lagging behind while questions are growing.

There are more and more complaints of Chinese students coming to the U.S. badly prepared, while their American colleagues have to sweat their way into college. Some universities are slowly starting to recognize that aggressive recruiting of better-paying foreign students may have a bad effect on the quality of education. Some lecturers are complaining that they have to use rudimentary English in order to enable some of the Chinese students to follow the classes. One Wall Street Journal article gives a long list of these disturbing observations, while an investigative piece by Reuters reveals fraud surrounding SAT tests that are being leaked and hacked in Asia.      

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