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  • How Chinese Students Become Nationalist:Their American Experience and Transpacific Futures
  • Yige Dong (bio)

Today, one-third of all international students in the United States are from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Through 2015 China was the leading sender of international students to the United States for six years, after nearly a decade of double-digit increases from sixty-two thousand to three hundred thousand.1 The massive number of Chinese students has been accompanied by a controversial image. Reports on academic dishonesty and conspicuous consumption associated with the Chinese students, especially those from wealthy families, have triggered dismissal and disgust from both Americans and fellow Chinese students of more humble backgrounds.2

What has also contributed to these contentious feelings is the symbolic meaning of the presence of Chinese students on American campuses. On the one hand, their flooding into American cities, metropolitan areas, and small towns may appear threatening or overwhelming to some local residents. As China is actively promoting itself as an alternative superpower domestically and afar, its students today become much more outspoken about their national pride compared with predecessors of any generation.

On the other hand, the coming of Chinese students is vital to the operation of the university, as American higher education has been undergoing a profound transition. Because of severe funding cuts, public universities now have to reduce the number of enrollment slots for in-state applicants and expand their overseas market, targeting full-tuition-paying undergraduate and graduate students from rising middle-income countries. Deemed the cash cow, Chinese students, about 40 percent of whom are undergrads, contributed $9.8 billion to the US economy in 2014.3 Drastic population increase yet insufficient institutional preparation offered by schools has resulted in many adaptation issues among the Chinese students, oftentimes leaving them isolated from other cultural groups.4 While to in-state applicants, the overwhelming arrival of the Chinese could diminish their own chances of going to college, [End Page 559] it might look even more threatening to some Chinese Americans, who find their unique ethnic identity being confused with noncitizens who happen to share the same ancestral origin.5

How do we make sense of these conflated perceptions of the Chinese students, as they seem both unprecedentedly formidable and vulnerable? Are the narratives being circulated accurate, or are they reflecting racial biases and prejudices of American society and larger economic, historical, and geopolitical structures that the Chinese students are arrested in? Does education and social experience in the United States matter in shaping these students’ subjectivities? Today, the majority of this massive group will return to China after they finish their studies, as American immigration policy has made it increasingly difficult for international graduates to remain and China’s continuous growth seems to promise more opportunities. In this context, understanding their simmering frustrations, increasing patriotism, and emerging engagement in transpacific civil movements among others would elucidate our discussion of the transpacific future. While many issues require future empirical investigation, my following analysis focuses on two specific points.

First, I offer a psychological profile of the nationalists among the Chinese students and demonstrate how the US context plays a role in facilitating their nationalistic tendency. Second, I emphasize group diversities and bring to light some neglected subcommunities of Chinese students in the United States, whose existence, though small, might have potential for alternative agenda-setting of future student activism and transpacific dynamics. Of course, my observation cannot represent the “Chinese international students” as a whole. In fact, I believe this very concept should be disaggregated to better understand the multiple subjectivities emerging from this highly heterogeneous group. As someone who has spent substantial time in the higher education systems of Beijing, Hong Kong, and the United States in the past one and a half decades, I believe that my viewpoint has been privileged to witness deeper dynamism and long-term changes among the overseas PRC students that may have not been well appreciated yet.

Like many observers, I started to notice the upsurge of strong nationalist sentiments among overseas Chinese students in 2008. In April of that year, when I was a master’s student at the University of Chicago, protests...


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pp. 559-567
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