By: Marisa Lee

“President Donald Trump’s America First policy sounds like bad news for me,” said Zhou Ding, a 22-year-old Chinese graduate exchange in his second semester at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, PA in the United States.

As Ding comes closer to his graduation in 2019, his parents want him to begin putting down his roots there. This means beginning a search to apply for US jobs and the coveted H-1B visa for employment.

Ding is one of a number of Chinese students who are beginning to change their perception of the US as their prime destination for studying and working abroad. “I would like to stay but the situation is not as good for me as in previous years,” Ding said.

In a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), of the 250 US institutions that participated, 25 percent saw declines in applications from Chinese undergraduate students and 32 percent saw declines from graduate students.

The impact on US educational institutions is likely to be negative. Amid an ongoing taxpayer revolt and shrinking university budgets, schools charge international students fees that are usually double those of domestic ones, and the international students are forced to pay for their own health care and other fees and are not eligible for US financial aid. 

With more than 1 million total foreign students now in the US, China by far sends the most, according to the Institute of International Education, which analyzes international exchange student rates.  In 2017, mainland students received 112,817 F-1 visas for foreign students to study at accredited US universities, more than double the second highest country, India, at 44,741, according to the US Department of State.  In total, there are said to be 350,000 Chinese students in the US, against 186,000 Indians.

The same survey pointed out that the most frequently noted concerns expressed by international students were the perception of an increased rise in denials of student visas and a less-welcoming US climate. Admission offers made to Chinese students may have decreased due to recurring visa delays and complications, according China Daily, China’s state-run English language newspaper.

Nini Suet, founder and head of Shang Lifestyle Consultancy, an educational consultancy that aids Chinese students to study abroad, says, “This year visas are more complicated [for Chinese students] as we started seeing students who were accepted by reputable schools in the US but their entry visas were rejected and it is a big issue now.”

Zhou Ding knows Trump has tightened policies on H-1B visas and says, “I think the emergence of these new policies in immigration is a clear reflection of the switch in attitude of the US towards Chinese students, which is not good for me.” 

With Trump’s harsher rhetoric on immigration policies and a recent resurgence in white supremacist demonstrations causing disarray across the nation, some Chinese students are prepared to adjust to the new changes in the environment, while others have simply left. 

One is Jay Liang, now an investment banker with JP Morgan Chase in Hong Kong, who entered an exchange program to the University of Pennsylvania in 2015. He first wanted to stay and work in the US, as Ding does, but eventually decided to leave and find work in Hong Kong instead.

The Trump administration has gradually made the US what he calls a “less friendly” environment for Chinese students. “Trump has created this unsettling mood that wasn’t there before,” Liang said in Chinese. For him, “Trump has stirred up this atmosphere ever-more-resentful attitude toward same sex marriage and the problem is if I wanted to live in the United States long-term then this is a problem for me.” 

“Things have gotten worse with Trump,” he added, saying that before the January 2017 inauguration “Americans did not speak out directly about homosexuality or racialism.”

Trump has given the American public more confidence and space to voice their opinions about topics that were more often left unspoken, the way some Chinese preferred it. As Trump’s likelihood of becoming president became stronger in 2016, Liang abandoned his plan to stay, even though he was eventually offered acceptance into a prestigious master’s program in the US.

“I think students need to be a lot more aware of the political and social environment when they do go to the US and now we are equipping them with the right skills to handle these emotional and social situations that are more important now than ever for them,” said Suet. “The American-centric ideas are making some of the Chinese students uneasy and also making a lot of schools uneasy because international tuition is a huge part of their revenue and if they were to only rely on domestic students for tuition then a lot of US schools will become broke.” 

Despite the concerns, Ding wishes to stay but knows that the reality to his dream seems more and more diminished. “The tuition is really expensive so if the job opportunities continue decreasing, I think no Chinese will come in the future,” says Ding.

The antipathy to the Chinese has been exacerbated by Trump’s continuing criticism of Beijing on a wide range of issues including the huge trade deficit between the two countries and for allegedly stealing jobs. He has accused China of intellectual property theft and threatened to label the country a currency manipulator.  

All of that has fed into an atmosphere where foreigners, including Chinese students, find themselves threatened. It appears inevitable that ultimately this confluence of factors will result in falling numbers of foreign students studying in the United States. That isn’t going to help anybody – not students seeking access to some of the world’s best universities, not to the universities, who look on foreign students as “cash cows,” in the words of Rahjul Chowdaha, CEO of DrEducation, in the industry journal International Higher Education Quarterly, and not for the United States itself, which as an immigrant nation has benefited from Chinese help in building its railroads, operating its restaurants, working in its science laboratories and serving in its military, among other things.

Marisa Lee is a student at the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.