What Is the Future for International Students in China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In the last several years, an under-appreciated element of China’s retreat from the global stage has been diminished educational exchange, and particularly that exchange’s impact on students. During the height of the pandemic, tens of thousands of students globally waited for official approval to enter or return to China for their studies, while countries such as the U.S., U.K., and Australia, among others, reopened their borders to foreign students. While some institutions were able to make special arrangements for student exchanges earlier, China fully resumed student visa processing as a part of full easing on immigration guidelines in January of this year. However, steep flight costs and logistical challenges have barred student exchange from returning to pre-pandemic levels. The Chinese government is yet to release data on the foreign student population from 2020 through 2023.

Those students able to travel to China during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced tremendous social and political changes in daily life, including the challenges of stringent zero-COVID restrictions and their eventual relaxation, President Xi Jinping’s securing of a third term, a major economic slowdown, and new classroom dynamics and challenges to academic freedom of speech, most recently in the backdrop of the Patriotic Education Draft Law.

What is often called “people-to-people” exchange is one of the last remaining areas that has not been completely submerged into competition. Similarly, it is also an area that enables generalizations and assumptions to be challenged by going to and experiencing a country directly. How detrimental would removing this integral part of cultural understanding be?

Considering these challenges and changes, are foreign students who study in China still able to form meaningful relationships with their Chinese counterparts, despite a tightening on educational channels? Are these students able to freely pursue their chosen areas of research? Are they experiencing a version of the country that best represents it? And how can China shape a more stable environment for international students and encourage greater student exchange, beyond that of senior scholars? —The Editors


During my internship at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, I co-authored a paper that found that the rapid succession of policy changes in 2022 had “served to reinforce a relatively newly-formed perception of China as an unpredictable market.” In the business sense, companies were telling us that the rapid about-turns in China’s zero-COVID strategy—which effectively went from the harshest policies in the world to completely loosened, overnight—and other sudden changes in government policies were spooking would-be investors in China’s market.

“Unpredictable” was also an apt description of the rollercoaster ride of the two-year program at Peking University I attended. From our admission in January 2021 onwards, our university’s administration told us repeatedly that approval for foreign students to enter China was just around the corner. Waiting for 18 months to finally get approval to go in August 2022 was too long for many of my classmates; they had already given up on joining this “fully residential” experience, and decided not to travel to China at all.

Whether we could obtain permits to work in China after graduation was highly unpredictable, too. Even though many of my classmates wished to remain in China at the conclusion of their studies, foreign students are given just 30 days after graduation to find a job, and another 30 days to procure a litany of documents from their home countries in order to apply for a work permit. Many of my classmates decided staying was too challenging. It’s hard not to look to a place like Hong Kong—where my degree from Peking University would enable me to obtain a two-year residence permit, even without a job offer—and wonder why mainland China would invest so many resources in its foreign students just to push them out of the country at the end of their studies.

As post-COVID contact resumes, it is also on the side of countries like the U.S. and U.K. to remove some of this unpredictability and forge closer relations in places where our interests align, such as in education. Even before applying, I remember reading articles about former Yenching Scholars being questioned by the FBI upon their return to the U.S., and worrying about how my time in China might affect a career path in public service further down the line. Paradoxically, at a time when in-depth knowledge of China is sorely needed, the worry that time spent in China will be viewed negatively in the future will only serve to dissuade more talented students from engaging first-hand with China.

Indeed, gaining this first-hand experience enabled me to push back against a simplistic vision of a monolithic nation, all too often showcased in discussions on China at home. My professors, each of whom had a different research angle and differing political views, gave valuable insights into how Chinese political, social, and cultural arguments were formed and rationalized. And, while heated debate in the classroom was largely avoided, our lectures sparked countless long discussions on the material we had studied in class over meals in the dining halls and drinks in Beijing’s many student bars. Exchanges like these, while quotidian for me during my studies, are now alarmingly few with the sharp drop in students from places like the U.K. and U.S. coming to China to study. Before ties sour further and the COVID-induced drop in Western students coming to China becomes permanent, the imperative is on both Chinese and Western governments to support and encourage these crucially important interactions. Only by doing so can some predictability finally be brought back to this cornerstone of engagement with China.

I boarded a flight in August 2021 bound for Shanghai having never set foot in China before, with just a summer crash-course in Mandarin and more questions than answers as to what awaited me after I touched down. I was not a China studies major as an undergrad, though I had noticed the increasing concern over the U.S.-China relationship, further escalated by the pandemic, and I decided to make my own pivot to Asia. Despite the shifting restrictions of China’s zero-COVID policy, which themselves provided a lesson on how to navigate Chinese bureaucracy, in Beijing I was able to build connections with local counterparts and research topics of interest. Heading off campus alone to a park, museum, or meeting in the capital often meant entering spaces as the only visible foreigner, and I began to discern both the benefits and challenges of experiencing this insular era in China.

The Chinese enrollees in the Schwarzman Scholars program, a one-year Master’s degree fellowship at Tsinghua University in Beijing, were broadly welcoming to the American and other international members of our cohort. Those I interacted with in the wider Tsinghua University community were curious to hear my impressions of China and often willing to discuss topics the government deems “sensitive,” if only during private conversations in English. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine, for example, spurred difficult but illuminating conversations with other graduate students on the United States’ and China’s roles in the conflict, which often segued into discussions about similar dynamics across the Taiwan Straits.

Throughout the year, I encountered an endless stream of young Chinese people eager to talk to me about moving to the United States. These were typically students of economically and academically elite backgrounds, but nonetheless talented and ambitious, and all of them worried about being rejected for U.S. visas. U.S. policymakers, especially those who see China as a competitor for innovation, must consider the detrimental long-run impact of turning away a generation of motivated Chinese students who see America as the preferred repository for their talent.

For China, perhaps a greater loss lies in its rejection of international students. Foreign students return home from China as authoritative sources on the nuances of life in the country, a critical counterweight to generalized media coverage. From the ground, I could share the differences I saw in pandemic responses or economic activity among provinces or relay the unfiltered opinions of the Chinese citizens I interacted with, in contrast to government propaganda.

To attract more international students, China needs, first, to break the cycle of slow-walking or denying visas in response to similar U.S. actions. Inflated flight costs to China remain a barrier for entry. Special airfare prices or free ticket schemes ought to exist for students. Digital services also need to receive better direction on making accommodations for international travelers. I frequently encountered WeChat mini apps that did not function without a Chinese national ID number.

A small core of curious foreign students like me and my colleagues at Schwarzman College will continue to go to China in pursuit of a first-hand impression of the country, reassured by the privileges of selective graduate programs. But for an average American college junior to pick a semester abroad in China over any other destination will require significant—and presently unlikely—shifts in China’s outward projection of hostility to academic freedom, and the resulting perception of its welcomeness abroad.

Over the past few years, “strategic mistrust” within the U.S.-China relationship has boiled over from diplomatic relations into the realm of academic exchanges, leaving scholars, businesspeople, and students caught in the middle. Although channels still exist for meaningful people-to-people exchange, they are narrower each day, with both countries shaping an environment where it is impossible not to feel scrutinized for studying in China.

On campus, the impacts of U.S.-China geopolitical clashes and strategic mistrust can be acutely felt. This manifests through one primary dimension: There simply are not enough American students in China. As Ambassador Nicholas Burns remarked earlier this summer, in the past academic year there were only 350 American students in China, saying nothing of the fact that the large majority of these students were enrolled in degree-seeking programs at Chinese institutions rather than pursuing language study curricula. With zero-COVID restrictions now in the rearview mirror, China should coordinate reciprocal student exchanges with U.S. universities and other partner institutions.

What’s more, for those foreign students currently studying in China, navigating daily life without basic Mandarin or mobile apps has grown increasingly difficult, making integration into society more of a challenge. As other American scholars have argued of their impressions of visiting Beijing, campuses are more tightly regulated for students coming and going and visitors alike, surveillance cameras dominate the cityscape, and digital payment apps like Alipay and WeChat have become the highly preferred option of most restaurants, service providers, and other vendors. These platforms have taken steps to make these experiences less difficult for foreigners in linking overseas credit cards to payment apps, but this is only one step in rendering society more friendly towards foreigners’ freedom of movement.

When it comes to academic experiences, in the words of one university lecturer, “the classroom is never a neutral space.” In contemporary Chinese campus life, it can be difficult to propose criticisms of foreign policy, domestic challenges, or most topics in between, even if seemingly constructive or legitimate. For example, discussing the limits to China’s vaccine diplomacy during COVID-19, questioning China’s stance towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or analyzing the potential negative impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on the developing world were conversations either quickly tabled or sandwiched with sufficient praise for the Chinese government’s actions.

This dynamic, however, does not mean sitting in a Chinese classroom as a foreigner is a fruitless exercise. As U.S.-China academic exchanges at nearly all levels have collapsed, it is crucial for young people to engage with Chinese counterparts who will undoubtedly shape their own nation’s future. Even with social movements such as youth nationalism on the rise, in my own experience I found it still very possible to have frank, honest, and even productive conversations with my Chinese classmates and professors. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised with the depth of discussion on topics like U.S.-China export controls and managing rising cross-strait tensions.

Domestically, China is facing historically extreme weather, rampant youth unemployment, and suboptimal economic recovery after the pandemic. Despite the internal scope of all these problems, many Chinese young people seek internationally-oriented solutions for these generational issues.

Studying in China as an American, it becomes not only an objective but a responsibility to help Chinese counterparts cast their worst aspersions on the U.S. aside and build relationships that can help sustain diplomacy between the two countries through the future.

In 2017, when I commenced my undergraduate studies at New York University in Shanghai, I was one of 489,200 international students studying in China. By the time I was completing my Master’s as a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University in 2022, that number had sunk to 292,000.

People-to-people exchanges facilitate the ability for individuals to immerse themselves in different countries and cultures to experience authentic versions of the place they are in. Western media has played a significant role in shaping widely held, often negative views of China. These views became the impetus for why I chose to study in China. Once there, I was completely immersed in Chinese language, culture, history, and day-to-day life.

One of my fondest memories in China is of watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from being in the stadium, so instead foreign and mainland students gathered together in the Tsinghua auditorium. As the only Australian there, I was hesitant to cheer for my country, but did so when its name was called. To my surprise, I was joined by a chorus of cheers from mainland students who were equally excited. This continued for all the other foreign students. It also sparked conversations about different cultures and questions about the symbolism of the national attire that Olympic teams wore. When it came time for China to be called, every person in the auditorium, irrespective of national identity, applauded. I remember looking around and seeing the waving of Chinese and Olympic flags, seeing a sea of smiles, and hearing people of all different national backgrounds bridging cultural understandings by engaging in conversations.

During the pandemic, the number of international students in China plummeted. Despite the lifting of COVID-19 pandemic measures, the return of international students is still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Reasons for this include lack of available flights, uncertainty about China’s pandemic management, and concerns with domestic political stability. Without China welcoming international students on the ground, how can we as foreigners begin to understand China to engage productively with it?

A lot of international students, myself included, were drawn to China because of a desire to increase engagement between China and our respective home countries. In the current state of affairs, this genuine desire to rebuild relations should be encouraged, not deterred. Navigating possibilities for cooperation and collaboration is only going to be made harder if we put up more obstacles for students to jump through.

Most of today’s global challenges are transboundary in nature. Our response to issues like climate change hinge on our ability to work together as an international community. Members of the younger generation are the ones who will be tackling these challenges head-on, and it is in the best interest of all countries to be building bridges, not barriers. China’s participation in responding to these issues is of utmost importance, and reducing opportunities for immersive learning will hinder our ability to work towards solutions. Through my experience at Tsinghua, I was able to meet not only incredibly talented individuals but make long-lasting friendships with people who I am now working with to address challenges like climate change.

Educational exchange is one of the only areas left that can transform the way we think of other countries. If we continue to hinder it, we will lose yet another way to know that our views of one another are accurate.