Decline of US Students in China Means Fewer Experts

05:52 July 9, 2024

Decline of US Students in China Means Fewer Experts

The number of Americans studying in China has decreased by large amounts in recent years, from around 11,000 in 2019 to 800 this year.

Some people with knowledge of China worry that the U.S. could lose a generation of “China experts” as a result.

David Moser is an American who has lived and worked in China for more than 30 years. He is the former academic director of China Educational Tours (CET) in Beijing. He said, “I haven’t seen an American student in years.”

CET was launched in 1982. The organization helps bring American students to China for language and cultural studies. It used to have programs in several cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Harbin and Hangzhou. Now, the program is only available in Beijing and Shanghai.

Moser thinks the U.S. has already lost a generation of students who could be Chinese experts 10 years from now.

During the 2011-12 school year, the number of American students in China was around 15,000. Since then, under Xi Jinping’s leadership and growing tension between the two countries, the number has decreased. At one point after the pandemic, the number dropped to 200 students.

Loss of understanding

Moser said having fewer people who understand China is a huge loss for the U.S. "You really need people who understand the two academic systems, the two college systems, and the way these things work in order to not make a huge mistake,” he said.

Compared with China, however, CET's projects in Taiwan have been attracting students.

Moser said CET started its first summer study abroad program at National Taiwan University in 2022. The program brought in more than 120 American students. He said the program was set up in Taiwan because too few American students wanted to go to China.

Moser believes that starting around 2008, air pollution and reports of human rights violations in China began to turn some American students away.

China's strict lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic also had a large effect. At that time, many foreigners, including American students, left China.

In addition, a revised Chinese anti-spying law that took effect on July 1, 2023, has made some Americans worry about traveling to China. The law expands how the Chinese government can look into the activities of foreigners in China.

As the law negatively affected China, the Chinese government tried to build up exchange programs. In November 2023, President Xi offered to invite 50,000 Americans to China for exchanges and studies for the next five years.

Meghan Burke is a former sociology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University. When VOA asked her about the 800 American students in China today, she said that the low number was a problem for the United States.

"Language is key to understanding culture. So, any (limits) on learning Mandarin or other Chinese languages only hold back our ability to have a broader and more complex intercultural understanding,” Burke said.

In contrast, 300,000 Chinese students are studying in the U.S.

Moser, of CET, said the unequal number of students between the two countries is bad for both countries. However, he added that it is even worse for the U.S.

Moser said while the U.S. lacks knowledge of China, “The Chinese have very good knowledge of the U.S., of its culture, of its government, everything.”

I’m Andrew Smith.

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