Studying in China May Have Gotten Harder for Americans, But We Shouldn’t Stop Trying

The U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, but it is at its worst point since President Richard Nixon visited in 1972—more than 50 years ago. Getting the relationship right is not easy, but getting it wrong is not an option. Universities have an opportunity and a responsibility to help, but they face headwinds. COVID closed the borders for three years, with only a trickle of American university students finding a way to study in China between 2020 and 2023. But deteriorating U.S.-China tensions, which began well before the pandemic and are ongoing, are causing students, faculty, and administrators to think twice about engagement since the borders reopened last spring. Universities have a chance now to lead the way on re-engagement, but we have to get on a plane and demonstrate that it is both feasible and advantageous for faculty and students to return.

I have made scores of trips to China. I first went as a 17-year-old high school student in the spring of 1990. My career—as a Ph.D. student, NGO employee, U.S. State Department China specialist, and now as a senior administrator and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania—has sent me back close to 100 times over more than 30 years. When China lifted its “dynamic zero-COVID policy” last winter, I was determined to return.

Immediately, doubts were raised. “Is it safe to go to China? Are you going to be detained at the border or put in a quarantine facility if you have a cough?” my Penn colleagues asked. “How should we factor rising tensions in the region into our student travel policy?” our university’s risk manager queried. “How can foreigners pay for things, now that China has shifted its economy to fully digital payment?” was another common question.

Walking up to immigration at Beijing Capital Airport in July 2023 made me nervous. Several scholars had been detained and even deported since the country reopened post-COVID, and I feared that I too would face questions from the authorities. My work has focused on human rights and democracy in China, and I have been critical of China’s pandemic management, which harkened back to the authoritarian social control reminiscent of the 1950s and ’60s and which many Chinese found distressing, even traumatizing. But after scrutinizing my 10-year visa that had been issued in 2015, the agent motioned me into the country with a stamp in my passport and a brusque nod of her head.

Beijing was bustling, but there were few foreign faces on the streets. Expats have been leaving the country by the thousands. Taking their place, it appeared, were hundreds of yellow-vested moped drivers making deliveries at all hours to contactless lockers sitting outside office and apartment buildings. Cash was obsolete, replaced by QR code readers for every transaction big or small. I looked for the swabbing stations and health code checkers that had been everywhere during the pandemic but found none.

China was deeply impacted by the COVID pandemic, with many in the country traumatized by their lockdown experience, but foreigners are now able to return. They haven’t. Foreign tourism in China has plunged 60 percent since 2019. The drop in the number of American students studying in China has been even more calamitous. In 2022-2023, the United States sent only about 350 students to China, down from a high-water mark of almost 15,000 in 2011-2012. The numbers are up slightly this year to about 800, according to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, but reversing the trend requires more than hand-wringing. We must take steps to send faculty and students back, to show not tell, as it were, that we are committed to resuming in-person research and teaching in China.

In January 2024, I led a Penn delegation of more than 30 deans, staff, faculty, researchers, and students to China to re-engage in scholarly discussions and classroom activities and meet with academic leaders across the country. The delegation included undergraduates studying traditional Chinese medicine as part of Penn’s China Education Initiative, which is aimed at giving students first-hand experience in China across a wide range of subjects. It also included four Penn deans, who were able to meet with their counterparts at leading institutions, and five Penn faculty, who were able to reconnect with scholars they had not met in person in at least four years. And it included a dozen China policy scholars, participating in a first-of-its-kind post-pandemic track two type discussion about the thorniest issues in the U.S.-China relationship, including nuclear policy and grand strategy, cyber and technology competition, human rights and democracy, economics and trade, and climate. The trip culminated in a 200-person daylong event discussing the importance of resuming Sino-U.S. connections in higher education and the challenges to that resumption.

It was a remarkable week. I was able, for example, to discuss with colleagues what a policy defined by competition means for America’s human rights policy in China. It is the kind of conversation that simply does not happen on Zoom.

Going to China is harder now than it was before the pandemic. There are fewer flights, it costs more, and visa policies are stricter. Study abroad programs are fewer now and the opportunities to intern, string, or get an English teaching gig have all but disappeared. Multinational companies are pulling out of China, meaning that China experience is less valuable for college graduates eager to get corporate jobs. American students interested in careers at the nexus of China and national security express concern that studying there will prevent them from getting security clearance down the road. In 2020, the United States shut down both the Peace Corps and Fulbright programs in China, committing what can only be considered an “own-goal” with regard to fostering the next generation of America’s China specialists.

On the Chinese side, the ongoing campaigns against “Western values” raise fundamental questions about how welcoming Chinese universities can be to continued academic engagement. To bolster their rhetorical efforts, the PRC has implemented strict data protection laws, closed or restricted access to archives, and erected more barriers to scholars doing research. Moreover, the decade-long backsliding on reform and opening up—as evidenced by the crackdown on civil society, rights lawyers, the media—not to mention the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, repression of rights in Hong Kong and Tibet, and sabre-rattling against Taiwan, constitute hostile soil for academic collaboration to flourish.

There are many barriers to boosting the number of faculty and students engaging China. Still, we must try. In a December 2023 speech in Washington, D.C., U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns called for more American students to study and return to China, warning that a next generation of leaders “that is cut off from China, that hasn’t had an experience there, that doesn’t speak Mandarin” is not in the national interest. At a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden one month earlier, Chinese President Xi Jinping set a goal to bring 50,000 American students to China in the next five years. But given the anemic uptake of President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative in the mid-aughts, reversing the downward trend in Americans studying in China will take more than government pledges.

American universities have a chance to play an important role in reestablishing frayed academic ties at this critical juncture, but they need to keep a few things in mind when doing so. One, they should create their own classes and programs with curriculum developed by their faculty, perhaps in partnership with Chinese colleagues, but not wholly outsourced to Chinese organizations. Two, they can be sensitive to the thorny issues that are raised regarding China, but they should never censor course content because the Chinese government may consider it sensitive. Three, they need to work with the federal government to clarify boundaries for research collaboration so that their faculty members can resume conversations with Chinese counterparts without fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of national security boundaries.

There are many predictions of an inevitable crisis (or even clash) between the United States and China. It would be naive to argue that academic collaboration is by itself going to significantly alter whatever course history may take. But academic collaboration, which includes student exchanges, faculty interactions, and the development of courses that center China-related content, are key to compiling as thorough and comprehensive an assessment as possible of what China is today and what its goals might be in the future. Increasingly, we are dependent on digital tools to do this, parsing Chinese social media for clues about where the country is headed. This is not bad, but it is incomplete. A reviewer of U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew’s memoir about Japan in the 1930s concluded that one of the reasons the United States failed to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor was lack of access to people beyond the Embassy’s circle of interlocutors:

as the years passed and as the tension increased, the Japanese Government more and more closed in around the Embassy until the time came when the Ambassador was compelled to inform the Department of State that he was able to report little more than what met the eye. The persons who actually shaped the policy became obscure and in the last two or three years it would appear that the Department was not adequately informed as to Japanese affairs.

Going to China now is just as important—if not more important—than it was when China’s booming economy generated interest on our campuses. Universities did not shy away from studying the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and we should not shy away from studying China now.