Can U.S.-China Student Exchanges Survive Geopolitics?

On a cool Saturday morning, in a hotel basement in Beijing, throngs of young Chinese gathered to do what millions had done before them: dream of an American education.

At a college fair organized by the United States Embassy, the students and their parents hovered over rows of booths advertising American universities. As a mascot of a bald eagle worked the crowd, they posed eagerly for photos.

But beneath the festive atmosphere thrummed a note of anxiety. Did America still want Chinese students? And were Chinese students sure they wanted to go to America?

“We see the negative news, so it’s better to be careful,” said Zhuang Tao, the father of a college senior considering graduate school in the United States, Australia and Britain. He had read the frequent headlines about gun violence, anti-Asian discrimination and, of course, tensions between the United States and China, at one of their highest levels in decades. “After all, the entire situation is a bit complicated.”

Students have been traveling between China and the United States for generations, propelled by ambition, curiosity and a belief that their time abroad could help them better their and their countries’ futures. The first Chinese student to graduate from an American university, Yung Wing, arrived at Yale in 1850 and later helped send 120 more students to America.

The trickle became a steady stream: For nearly the past two decades, Chinese students have made up the largest share of international students in the United States. And for Americans, until the coronavirus pandemic, China was the most popular destination for study abroad outside of Western Europe, according to an annual State Department-funded survey. Students have been an anchor in the two countries’ relations, even when political or economic ties have soured.

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