Number of US students in China has plunged in wake of COVID curbs

Pandemic restrictions and security and censorship concerns dampen interest in China, as many opt for Taiwan.
By Stacy Hsu for RFA Mandarin
Number of US students in China has plunged in wake of COVID curbs Sam Trizza, 25, an American student in Nanjing, China.
Courtesy of Sam Trizza

Sam Trizza, an American who’s studying at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center's School of Advanced International Studies in China, is frequently asked if he is from Russia.

Not because he's practically unbeatable at chess, or can hold his vodka better than anyone, but because he's white, and there are so few Americans studying in China these days that everyone assumes he must be Russian.

"Back in 2017, back in 2015, 2012, everybody would look and be like, 'Oh my gosh, welcome from America'," Trizza, 25, who has now made five trips to China in total, told RFA Mandarin. "Now everybody thinks I'm Russian because there's so many Russian students across China."

The number of Americans studying in China has plummeted, falling to just 700 – down from 15,000 six or seven years ago, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns told a seminar at the Brookings Institution in December 2023.

“Last year we were down to 350 American students in all of China," he said. "Now we've doubled that population to 700 American students [in China]."

Much of the reluctance can be traced back to three years of stringent zero-COVID policies, during which students started heading to democratic Taiwan, where Mandarin is also widely spoken.

Another factor is the online censorship and political restrictions that increasingly affect foreigners in China, making the country less enticing as a destination for overseas study.

"The general thought is that China's very restrictive and very censored in terms of what you can access, what you say, you need a VPN, you can't do certain things," Colin Richter, a 27-year-old U.S. citizen who studied in Taiwan in the summer of 2022, told RFA Mandarin. "That pushes people away."

"Taiwan is a much more open society, which is much more similar to how the U.S. is, and so I think it's a lot easier to sort of adjust to the culture," Richter said. "And on top of that, it's just easier to go to Taiwan because of visas."

Far more Chinese students in the U.S.

Conversely, there was only a slight drop of around 500 in the number of Chinese students granted visas to enroll at U.S. universities in fiscal 2023. They number 289,526, and remain the single largest group of international students in the country, according to State Department figures released in November.

While the Americans and Europeans are staying away from China in droves, the Russians are filling the vacuum they have left behind on Chinese college campuses.

Colin Richter, 27, sees the sights while attending a summer program in Taiwan, 2022. (Courtesy of Colin Richter)

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko said during a visit to China in December that his country currently has 100 educational programs running in China, and has set up 27 joint-venture educational institutions affiliated with Chinese universities. 

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said in May 2023 that there were 7,500 Russian students in China at the time of his visit.

Chinese President Xi Jinping also appears to have noticed the trend, announcing last November that his country stands ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on educational exchanges over the next five years, state media reported.

‘Cut off’

For Ambassador Burns, such exchanges are crucial, particularly in the wake of increasingly strained bilateral ties between Beijing and Washington.

Burns warned in December that the lack of two-way educational exchange could lead to "an American leadership in the future that is cut off from China," adding: "That's not in the national interest."

He said educational exchanges form part of a "ballast" that drives down the probability of a conflict with China.

"No person in their right mind should want this relationship to end up in conflict or in war," Burns said. "We're going to have to develop a relationship where we can compete responsibly."

Sam Trizza at the start of his program at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center's School of Advanced International Studies. (Courtesy of Sam Trizza)

Trizza appeared to agree with this view.

"Coming to China specifically, this is the bread and butter of the relationship," he said. "You have to understand China, you have to interact with China."

"You can't just interact with the democratic version of a Mandarin speaking country," he said, in a reference to Taiwan. "You need to interact with it politically, culturally, economically, everything.”

That includes accepting far higher levels of restriction on his daily activities than would be the case back home.

"I'm here studying and I have by default accepted that my WeChat is monitored and, you know, I'm one of less than 1,000 Americans here," he said. "I'm sure everything I say is in some ways being recorded ... and I've just accepted, that's a reality of coming to study in China."

Mixture of factors

Yang Dali, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said there are multiple factors behind the decline in numbers, but that the zero-COVID years were a turning point.

In the first decade of the 2000s, a lot of American students felt that there were actually a lot of opportunities in China, not just learning the language," Yang said. "They thought there would be career opportunities, whether in the U.S. or China."

But the impact of being corralled into lengthy COVID lockdowns, enforced quarantine and mass compulsory testing and tracking of their movements took a toll, Yang said.

"A lot of people are thinking that China is looking a lot less attractive," Yang said.

Andrew Mertha, director of the China Global Research Center at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, said he noticed the numbers falling before he joined SAIS in 2018, and has heard various explanations.

Colin Richter (third from right) enjoys bubble tea with classmates on a summer program in Taiwan, 2022. (Courtesy of Colin Richter)

"Some people said that a lot of students wanted to learn about China so that they could go do business, and then the business climate became more complicated," Mertha said. "There were other students that were worried about the pollution in China."

"There was never a really good explanation for why the numbers started to go down, but ... with COVID and also with the breakdown of U.S.-China relations, that has had an effect as well," he said.

Security concerns

Another factor could be fears for personal safety and security, Mertha said.

"I have colleagues in Hong Kong who ... are nervous about crossing the border and try to avoid doing so," he said, citing a "tiny number" of cases where foreign students have been detained, harassed or prosecuted by the authorities in recent years, and adding that he doesn't think the risk is high enough to warrant deserting China for Taiwan.

"For people who are interested in understanding the specific economic situation ... those who want to study politics and policy on the mainland, you're not really going to get a whole lot in Taiwan," he said.

The State Department currently warns American citizens to “reconsider travel” to China, “due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

“U.S. citizens traveling or residing in the People’s Republic of China may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime,” the advisory says, adding that they “may be subjected to interrogations and detention without fair and transparent treatment under the law.”

Burns warned in December that the current lack of interest doesn't bode well for the United States, which needs to grow the next cohort of China experts over the next few years.

"We need young Americans to learn Mandarin, we need young Americans to have an experience of China," he said. And it's in the U.S. interest for young Chinese people to study at American universities "to understand our democracy."

And for Trizza, the sacrifice of privacy and some personal freedom is worth it.

"I find China so radically different than my home in certain ways," he said. "The differences are stark enough that it's important to come experience them."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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May 03, 2024 09:43 AM

What this report doesn't acknowledge is that a significant reason why there are so few Americans currently studying in China is because many US schools haven't re-opened their study abroad programs to China. This does not necessarily reflect a decrease in the desire to study in China, but that the restrictions for this are on the US side. For instance, the Department of Education did not allow students to use FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowships to study in China until March/April 2024. Students at many universities cannot apply their financial aid packages or receive any credit that will transfer back to their home university if they go to China to study for a semester (or longer) because the university has not formally restarted programs. This is not a visa issue. Getting a student visa to study in China right now is MUCH easier than Chinese students getting a visa to study in the US.