New Security Measures Curtailing the Study of China Alarm Educators

Late last year, The New York Times reported on a new state-level bill in Florida that was creating unintended consequences for prospective Chinese graduate students.

The bill restricts universities from accepting grants from or participating in partnerships with seven “countries of concern,” including China. Now, it is creating confusion among Florida universities unsure where Chinese graduate students fall under the confines of that law. It may have already succeeded in scaring off talented students who could make important research contributions, and universities have refrained from making offers until the law is clarified, the Times reported.

It’s not just Florida. Several states, including Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, and Montana, have pursued laws aiming to limit foreign influence, particularly from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), by specifically targeting exchange and cooperation with students, researchers, and academic institutions.

On the national level, House lawmakers in December also voted to pass the DETERRENT Act, a bill that would bar universities from entering into any contracts with “countries of concern” and lower the reporting threshold of gifts from individuals or entities from those countries to $0.

These laws are contributing to what some academics describe as a “securitization” of China studies, a trend toward casting the study of China as a matter of national security. This can mean everything from a belief that the primary purpose of studying China is geostrategic to scrutinizing faculty, educational exchanges, and study abroad in order to thwart threats.

“Of course it makes sense if national security concerns drive student interest in China these days,” says Neysun Mahboubi, director of the Penn Project on the Future of U.S.-China Relations. “But it would be unfortunate and distortive if that is the only lens through which we are incentivizing our students to study China.”

Laws like the DETERRENT Act are part of a wider trend of U.S.-imposed barriers on what are commonly referred to as “people-to-people” exchanges in China. Also playing a role is the heightened surveillance environment and further limits on academic freedom inside China, generally poor political relations between the two countries, and logistical issues like the low number and high cost of flights.

Many scholars and observers say that the decline in scholarship will only continue to damage the already fragile relationship between the U.S. and China at a time when more expertise is needed to deal with one of America’s most important relationships.

“The United States is in desperate need to train the next generation of Sinologists [to] . . . advise government, business, and academia,” says Denis Simon, former executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University who has been conducting business and academic exchanges with China since the early 1980s. “If we don’t have a cadre of young people who are going to China . . . then we’re going to be in a difficult spot because we won’t have people who can really, as they say, speak the Chinese language.”

In 2011, nearly 15,000 American students were studying in China. By the 2018-2019 academic year, the last full year before the outbreak of COVID-19, that number had already declined to 11,639.

The State Department’s most recent statistics show that 382 American students were in China in 2020-2021, dropping to just 211 students in 2021-2022. (The number of Americans in China in the 2022-2023 academic year is not yet available.)

Enrollment of American higher education students in Chinese language courses was already on the decline before COVID-19, dropping by 21 percent between 2016 and 2020, while enrollment in Korean grew by 25 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile, roughly 290,000 Chinese students were in the United States last school year, a notable decline from the pre-COVID era (more than 372,000 in 2019-2020), yet still representing a significant deficit in exchange student numbers between both countries.

Amid the dramatic decline in numbers, some key State Department-backed, on-the-ground opportunities in China have disappeared. The Critical Language Scholarship, a summer-long language intensive program, now only offers mainland China programs digitally; Fulbright, a fellowship supporting research abroad, terminated its China exchange in 2020. A majority of the Confucius Institutes, Chinese state-backed language institutes at international schools, many of which provided study abroad opportunities to participating students, have also closed across the U.S. following individual reviews or due to new federal regulations seeking to curb CCP influence at U.S. institutions.

Montana recently passed a bill requiring universities to file detailed reports “on all existing collaborations, partnerships, contracts, donations, and contributions related to an entity or individual associated with a foreign country of concern.”

The University of Montana (UMT) was the first university in the state to restore educational exchange with China after China’s borders reopened following pandemic border closures, according to Andrew Person, executive director of the Max S. Baucus Institute, which facilitates the university’s exchanges. He says staff there have been “diligent in complying” with the new rules and requirements imposed by the new law.

Starting last summer, UMT began running short-term exchange programs in collaboration with the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a Hong Kong-based nonprofit, and with the Wanxiang Group, a Chinese car parts conglomerate with a Chicago-based subsidiary that co-runs a technical college with the city government in Hangzhou.

In December, lawmakers called on UMT to cancel two CUSEF trips planned for next summer, citing the foundation’s connections with the CCP. CUSEF is “not a benign entity interested in the objective education of Montanans” the legislators wrote in a letter to UMT President Seth Bodnar. Rather, they wrote, it is “an organ of the [CCP’s] approach to influence operations, including those intended to shape Americans’ views toward the [CCP]-controlled People’s Republic of China government.”

Wang Lei—China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Columbia University students learn to write Chinese calligraphy during a China-U.S. student exchange program in Chengdu, Sichuan province, January 7, 2024.

CUSEF’s founding chairman, Tung Chee-hwa, is a former Chief Executive of Hong Kong and vice chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a People’s Republic of China (PRC) political advisory body and an organ of China’s United Front strategy. CUSEF is also registered in the United States as a foreign agent of China due to its financial backing by the Chinese government and ties to Tung, according to a Justice Department filing.

But Person says the Baucus Institute plans to continue its exchanges conducted through CUSEF and expand exchange opportunities with China despite the criticism.

“We think it is important for students to travel to China to make up their own minds,” Person says. “We invite anyone concerned about this to meet with some of these Montanans who have traveled to China to learn. . . Many of our students have said these exchanges have been a highlight of their higher education. It’s one thing to read about a foreign country, but something entirely different to go see it, get to know its citizens, eat the food, etc. It’s so important.”

Sara Newland, an assistant professor of government at Smith College, says that “a shared set of standards or a vetting process, akin to the CFIUS process for vetting foreign investment,” might be a better path forward when it comes to assessing partnerships with Chinese universities.

“I think it’s appropriate to think carefully about the possible security risks associated with academic partnerships, but a patchwork of different state laws does not seem like the most effective way to do this, especially when many appear to be responding to political calculations (e.g. that being anti-China makes for good politics) and when different states are coming down in really different places in response to similar purported threats,” Newland said in an email.

Besides state legislation, the State Department’s Level 3 travel warning in June for mainland China, which warns Americans to “reconsider travel,” has gotten in the way of some students’ study plans. According to the State Department, the travel warning was raised “due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

Andrew Shea, a 22-year-old third-year student at the University of Iowa, eagerly looks forward to a future in academia and China-related research. But he’s still trying to figure out how he can study abroad in China before finishing his Bachelor’s degree.

The program Shea had intended to pursue, the university’s “Iowa in Tianjin” program, shut down in 2020 amid the outbreak of COVID-19 and still hasn’t resumed operation. The travel warning is the primary reason, according to Russ Ganim, associate provost and dean of International Programs at the University of Iowa. In order to resume exchanges with China, “The U.S. Department of State travel advisory must be labeled Level 1 or Level 2, and our third-party providers must resume programming,” he said via email. “When programming is operating normally, i.e., the State Department Advisory is at Level 1 or Level 2, there are options in addition to Tianjin, but resumption of all programming is contingent on State Department advisories and third-party program providers.”

Shea describes the process of trying to make it to China as “smashing your head up against a brick wall.” “Everybody collectively acknowledges the brick wall is there,” he says, “but they’re shrugging their shoulders like, ‘Oh well.’”

Many American universities have also yet to revive their study abroad programs in China. At least one other, Ohio State University (OSU), explicitly invokes the travel alert as a reason for the suspension of their China study abroad programs, which included short- and long-term cultural and language exchange opportunities. According to Simon, the former Duke Kunshan University chancellor, the chill the State Department’s guidance has cast on similar programs is likely more widespread. He says it’s a big problem, particularly for public land-grant universities which “find it difficult to operate in a way that is not consistent with the State Department protocols.”

Still, even if the State Department were to revise its travel alert, other obstacles might remain. Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, says interest in studying China among students remains high. “But the interest in spending a semester in China, that might take a while to recover.” Some are concerned that they will have trouble getting a security clearance in the U.S. if they engage in any travel or exchange with China, she says.

The precariousness of China’s COVID-19 policies and risk of arbitrary detentions has cemented many students’ doubts about their comfort and security there, Gadsden says. For other students, logistical issues like the high cost of flights to China remained an issue.

Those fears are not unfounded. In 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that in private conversations, Chinese officials had warned their American counterparts they might detain U.S. citizens in China following the Justice Department’s prosecutions of Chinese scholars.

In 2021, six American students at New York University’s Shanghai campus were detained by Chinese plainclothes police in two separate incidents for unclear reasons, according to The Washington Post. Two of the students were physically assaulted by police, the Post reported. NBC News reports that the increased use of exit bans has had a particularly chilling effect on Chinese diaspora with familial ties to China—including scholars—raising fears that they might not be able to return to the United States following a visit.

Gadsden observes that the forces driving interest in China in recent years have changed: During the 2000s and early 2010s, Americans flocked to China in hopes of cashing in on its economy’s exponential growth. “Now, the driving force is, ‘China is our greatest competitor or greatest security threat,’” says Gadsden.

The political climate also affects researchers. University of Pennsylvania faculty have been reluctant to resume research relationships with counterparts in China due to the uncertainty of the political environment or future legal and security changes both in China and the United States, Gadsden says.

A recent study from the American Council of Learned Societies found that many schools, mainly small liberal arts colleges and some research institutions, have seen institutional support for their China programs slashed in favor of Western and American Studies, even though interest in studying China remains strong among students.

The study also found that many China scholars abandoned their research topics due to difficulty accessing research materials or concern about their or their research participants’ safety. Some are now conducting research from Taiwan, or have shifted their research focus to Taiwan itself; others have begun focusing on diasporic communities in other parts of the world.

Emily Baum, an associate professor of modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine and co-author of the study, wrote in an email that laws aimed at further securitizing academic exchange likely have a stronger impact on scholars rather than students, especially in STEM fields.

“Colleagues have noted their frustration at not being able to collaborate as freely with China-based colleagues as they were in the past and the difficulties involved in securing visas for PRC nationals to come to the United States,” she says.

For Simon, the restrictions on exchanges with China were too much to bear. In 2023, he took up a position as a professor of business and technology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he taught courses on China and the global economy. He says for the first time in his career, he had to get university approval from five different offices to attend a speaking engagement in Beijing. In August, Simon invited Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu to the university for a dialogue on U.S.-China relations. He says he received a phone call from the provost stating that he was not authorized to invite foreign government representatives to the university, “especially from China,” without explicit approval. He was also not allowed to bring students to China or Hong Kong as part of a business class due to the Level 3 travel alert.

Simon stepped down from his position shortly after.

“I’ve had a 40-year career with China,” Simon says. “All of these things just baffled me and I said, this university just doesn’t get it. It’s lagging behind in terms of a vision of what the world is going to look like in the next 25 years.”

UNC did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Miles Yu, director of the Hudson Institute’s China Center and former policy advisor to then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the idea that the United States is contributing to the widening gap in intellectual exchanges between the U.S. and China is “totally wrong” and “intellectually dishonest.”

“It is not the United States that politicized the process. The Chinese did that,” Yu said. He argued that new regulations in states like Montana and Florida, as well as the Level 3 travel warning, help American universities maintain transparency and academic integrity, abide by international standards, and keep students and researchers safe.

The U.S. has the opportunity to play a leading role in ensuring academic freedom in China, at least for American students, Yu said. “One of the best ways is to ask each university or academic institution that wants to do academic exchange with China to sign some kind of pledge to the public and American law enforcement agencies that when you conduct academic exchange with China, you promise you will not cooperate with the Chinese national security authorities to harm American citizens.”

Academic exchange with China of course has not completely disappeared. American scholars returning to China after the pandemic say their counterparts are eager to engage.

And despite the additional paperwork, the Baucus Institute at UMT sent 22 students to China last summer and plans to send another group this summer. U.S. diplomats have said they expect the number of American students in China to increase following the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions.

Pin Ni, president of the Wanxiang America Corporation, hosts high school and college students from the midwest on fully-funded exchange programs at the Wanxiang Polytechnic University campus, a vocational school run by the government of the city of Hangzhou and the Wanxiang Group. He says there are already set plans for exchanges with two universities next year, one of them UMT, but that partnerships with additional schools are still being finalized. “If you need to see China as your enemy, you still need to understand what the enemy is doing,” he said. “Isolating yourself from the world is very stupid.”

Notably, Xi Jinping announced following his meeting with President Joe Biden in November that China intends to welcome 50,000 American students to China in the next five years. China has not offered further details about this, and the Chinese embassy in the United States did not respond to an information request sent by ChinaFile.

Interviewees say this is a step in the right direction, but there will have to be significant change on both sides of the U.S.-China relationship for exchange to return to pre-COVID levels.

“Xenophobic rhetoric from both sides will need to be toned down,” says UC Irvine’s Baum. “More flights between the two countries will need to be restored. And educators will need to take pains to explain to their students why knowledge of China is valuable and necessary, not just for becoming more globally informed but also for being competitive in the job market.” Until that happens, students like Shea may continue to wait around for an opportunity to visit China on the ground, or just decide to pursue other opportunities elsewhere. As Gadsden put it, America has already lost a generation of potential China experts who missed the chance to establish roots of understanding with China in the isolated years of COVID-19. Under current circumstances, reversing that trend will be a tall order.