How Chinese Students Become Nationalist:Their American Experience and Transpacific Futures
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 against the San Francisco leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay had invoked vehement backlash by Chinese students abroad. A college friend I met at Peking University and then a PhD student in Southern California blogged about his trip to the Bay Area to defend the torch. My friend was only one among many young nationalists, whose spectacular rise on the Internet in 2008 later gained them [End Page 560] a collective identity, the April youth. In retrospect, this well-reported incident, together with the 2006 controversies over the MIT woodblock prints,6 marked the coming of a new era, in which the image of overseas Chinese students becomes associated with strong nationalist sentiments and distinct agency in making their voices heard.
Yet what struck me back then was less about the nationalist reaction among the Chinese students as a group than about my friend’s personal transformation. Back in college, my friend was a self-identified liberal and critical of the Chinese government. As many students did at Peking University in the early 2000s, we shared the same ritualistic experience that involved watching Tiananmen, the banned three-hour documentary about the 1989 student movement, downloaded from a campus intranet server. Years of textbook teaching of officially sanctioned history and sinicized Marxist theory had, ironically, developed in us a mentality to not trust any state rhetoric but focus on personal meritocratic advances instead. Later, both my liberal friend and I joined many young women and men from top Chinese universities, preparing for TOEFL and GRE exams and awaiting admission offers from graduate schools abroad, with the United States being the most desirable destination. To us, declaring oneself patriotic seemed “uncool” if not embarrassing, and in fact irrelevant to the immediate reality.
But a few years later when my friend went to the torch-defending protest, I started to ask myself what nationalism meant to our generation and how to respond to both my fellow Chinese and American academic peers who were concerned about these nationalistic discourses. More important, I wondered, what kinds of changing social and political contexts have transformed a student like my friend, who used to be critical of the Chinese government but has now become defensive whenever someone criticizes the regime.
Nationalist sentiment, of course, is not something newly fabricated into Chinese students’ mind-sets. In fact, student movements in modern Chinese history, dated back to the early twentieth century, have always been fueled with nationalist spirits. The Tiananmen movement was not an exception because the students protested against the corrupt government for the sake of the nation and its people. However, while the 1989 student nationalists hoped to democratize the one-party political system to save the nation, the current generation seems to agree with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and are skeptical about any other mode of governance.
What caused this consent first of all has to be understood in the context of changing geopolitics and state strategy. While the earlier generations of overseas students found themselves “carrying the burden of China’s a hundred [End Page 561] years of weakness and defeat and the question of Western humiliation is always unconsciously inside them,” as Orville Schell put it,7 Chinese students today are witnessing the country’s reintegration into the global capitalist system with dazzling growth and are becoming the direct beneficiaries of the current regime. In the higher education milieu, the Chinese state is heavily subsidizing hundreds of students and scholars annually, sending them to visit the most prestigious universities and research institutions in North America and other regions. A “Thousand Talents” plan launched in 2008 has been recruiting global experts, with Western-trained Chinese PhDs being the main targets, to work in China by providing them lucrative funding and research facilities. All these initiatives signal a clear message to overseas students and scholars that the government is more resourceful and stronger than ever and willing to invite them back.
Equally crucial to the development of the students’ pro-PRC attitude, I argue, is their experience of studying and living in the United States. While many students had idealized the United States before their arrival, imagining it to be a promised land of fair competition, freedom, and most important, personal success and wealth, they soon realized that America is not as perfect as they had thought. They were greeted by frequent robberies and other crimes in neighborhoods around campus, as many major universities are located in deindustrialized cities where racism intersects with class and judicial injustice. On campus, corporatist university management has made graduate teaching and research assistants, a substantial proportion of whom are Chinese, precarious laborers with minimum wages and lousy health insurance. Moreover, coming in large numbers without sufficient institutional orientation has not only triggered many adaptation issues, especially among the undergrads, but also created a condition easier for these young adults to build bonds only within themselves rather than reaching out and mingling with other groups. What is complicit with this self-isolating tendency are the latent racial and cultural prejudices they have sensed, when, for example, called “fobby” (derived from “fob,” fresh off the boat).
On top of daily encounters, Chinese students have frequently spotted selective and biased representation of China in the media that only triggered more anger and disappointment about US society. Without a critical vision that can transcend the unit of analysis beyond the nation-state, they handle these feelings of frustration by reconsolidating a psychological link with the motherland. Once cynical about the CCP, they are now giving more credit to its achievements in eliminating poverty, providing welfare, developing infrastructure, and so forth. However, their high nationalistic energy has hardly been reproduced in other political arenas or over other social debates. Other [End Page 562] than expressing their national pride, most Chinese students in the United States have been uninterested in any campus or community-based activism that seeks justice in a local context.
Ostensibly self-contradictory, I argue, Chinese students’ overall cynicism developed in China and their nationalism that is, ironically, acquired abroad are in fact two sides of one coin, a disempowered mentality that does not believe in collective solidarity for envisioning systemic justice beyond personal interests. While many young Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s are skeptical about the government, they had also produced, unfortunately, an apathy in confronting political power in any form. Deprived of participatory rights in formal politics and civil movements in China, young Chinese nationals could not do much to change anything except for shielding themselves from dogmatic political discourse and working hard to get ahead in the meritocratic credentialing system. Many years later, I now understand that this kind of mind-set belongs to a “sophisticated egoist,” a term coined to describe student pragmatists who are “good at acting and leveraging the institutional rules for their personal agendas.” Sophisticated egoists endorse market pragmatism and political indifference, and both are orchestrated by the party-state.8
After getting a PhD degree in the United States, usually in STEM, many Chinese students go into engineering and business and work hard toward their “American dream,” something promised in the expression “you can make it if you try hard.” They typically settle down in a middle-class suburb and continue remaining silent on American politics until one day, they find their seven-year-old telling them that transgender people can choose to use the bathroom of either sex. Panicked and angry, some Chinese parents joined their conservative American counterparts to sign the petition.9 In the past presidential election, it was observed that some of these first-generation Chinese immigrants were unprecedentedly vocal and involved because they found their view of politics resonating with some of the rhetoric of Donald Trump.10 For example, as high-achieving individualists, they believe that hard work and self-reliance is sufficient for personal success and redistributive policies would only encourage laziness.
While the above psychological profile may provide an explanation to a commonly reported pattern that applies to a significant portion of Chinese international students, the rest of the essay brings to light issues oftentimes neglected in the mainstream stories. First, despite the widely spread nouveau riche image of today’s overseas Chinese, a class division is clearly characterizing the ever-expanding student population. Although quite a few Chinese students are from well-off backgrounds and can even afford private boarding [End Page 563] school in New England, many of them are from humble backgrounds. They might also self-identify as “middle class,” but middle class in China today, as it is in the United States, is a broad term covering a wide range of social strata. Disappointed at higher education in China, many parents would rather pay a high tuition fee for their child’s college education abroad, even though this may involve selling their inner-city apartment, which can be worth more than three hundred thousand dollars in Beijing and Shanghai today. For these students, coming to the United States and pursuing a degree in business or engineering is not only about getting a decent education but about helping one’s family strategize its resources.
In addition to socioeconomic differences, Chinese students are further separated by program of study. It is true that as of 2015, most of them were in business management (26.5 percent), math and hard science (21.3 percent), and engineering (19.7 percent), with less than 8 percent in social sciences (including economics) and less than 1 percent in humanities.11 However, the small size of the latter two categories does not necessarily imply insignificance. To most Chinese, choosing humanity and social science majors such as history and sociology is not practical for career building and wealth accumulation; students determined to pursue a major in social sciences or humanities are people of a different orientation. Many of them had a more critical view of the Chinese government and set out, by their own efforts, to develop analytic tools to make sense of the conflated narratives of reality and representation of histories. Enrolling in seminars on modern Chinese history, comparative politics, social inequalities in the Chinese society, and so on gave them a perfect avenue and fresh perspectives to engage with issues that have long puzzled them.
Meanwhile, the past six years have seen profound changes in American political discourse. The Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, and the popularity of Bernie Sanders’s political revolution discourse among the millennials have all made university campuses an epicenter of activism and offered something inspiring for Chinese students who are not satisfied with ready-to-grasp rhetoric offered by either the paternalistic homeland or the neoliberal establishment in the United States. Joining some of the BLM protests, pro-union rallies, or most recently anti-Trump demonstrations, some Chinese students for the first time in their life had a chance to exercise their civil rights, paradoxically in a country that defines them as aliens. When politics is not an abstract concept anymore but embodied in one’s daily actions and conversations, this could be a transformative moment for new subject making.
Recently, some of the invoked students have been building up diverse intellectual communities that may promise a different future. One impressive [End Page 564] example is the website CNpolitics.org. Founded by a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, its current contributors include thirty-one young Chinese intellectuals, more than half of them current grad students in the United States or the UK. CNpolitics regularly introduces the newest English-language academic publications to the ordinary Chinese audience without jargon. In these original book and article reviews and interviews with diaspora Chinese scholars, the student contributors do not waste any opportunity to relate scholarly works conducted outside China—or even those not about China—to domestic Chinese issues. Their latest entries include reviews on studies of race-based voting in the United States, the predicament of the Confucius Institute, and a special piece on liberalism and nationalism.12 This mode of Chinese public-oriented intellectual writing will not help these student authors gain career currency in the highly professionalized Western academic system. The purpose of such an endeavor is clear: to influence and engage the Chinese public sphere by translating and transforming knowledge they have pursued outside China.
Another intriguing example involves activities following the recent upsurge of feminist voices from China and the state’s unpredicted repression of it.13 In March 2015 a group of young feminists was arrested and detained on the eve of the International Women’s Day when they planned to put anti–sexual harassment stickers on public transportation. Since the Communist Party officially supports women and such values as equal rights to work, the sudden detention of five young women shocked scholars and feminists globally and was widely covered in the English-language media. One reason details about the crackdown and conditions of the detained feminists were made transparent and released to the international community was that an anonymous group of Chinese students, mainly in the United States, was instantly updating the detainees’ conditions in China on Facebook. This year, based on this initial group, a nongovernmental organization called “The Chinese Feminist Collective” was registered in the United States, with more than a hundred members, and continues to support transnational feminist activities and advocate for gender equality in China through new media platforms. On January 21, 2017, more than thirty of them from all across North America joined the Women’s March on Washington. In addition to supporting their global sisters in fighting Trump’s presidency, these Chinese feminist students hoped that their US-based advocacy “could inspire at least some to advance feminist causes when they returned home.”14
The rise of these nonconventional Chinese student groups has laid out a hopeful picture in two senses. First, definitely nascent and tiny in size, these [End Page 565] alternative groups are not satisfied with self-cultivation but are organizing, publishing, and trying to enact changes on the ground, mostly focused on China. Second, it demonstrates that both academic training and the broader sociopolitical environment in the United States do play vital roles in inspiring and influencing some of the Chinese students. Progressive pedagogical programs that unpack ideologies, defamiliarize nationalist myths, and adopt a transnational perspective in critiquing multiple forms of social inequalities may help generate new voices that are not caught in mainstream political discourses in either country.15
Today, my old college friend has returned to China. Aside from teaching and doing research at a prestigious national university, he is also a respectable intellectual advocating for academic professionalization and investigating gender inequality in STEM. Still a patriot, he frequently expresses criticism of university administration and the government and endorses values of academic integrity and social equity that he had developed further in the United States. Like him, many Chinese students will return in the coming decade. In what way they will change the status quo is an open question. If there is anything one can do about the new hegemonic power in the making, it is to influence individuals working in that system who can make a bigger difference. As I have demonstrated above, the US experience is vital in that it can either push Chinese students to be more parochial in their nationalist sentimentality or empower them to pursue a progressive agenda beyond existing boundaries.
Yige Dong Yige Dong is a PhD candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University. She studied at Beijing University and received her BA from the University of Hong Kong and MA from the University of Chicago. Her research lies at the intersection of gender, labor, and political economy. Her dissertation examines how care work has changed as China transitioned from state socialism to a capitalist economy. She also studies feminist movements in contemporary China.
1. For comprehensive data, see Institution of International Education, “Educational Exchange Open Doors Fact Sheet: China,” 2015, www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/Fact-Sheets-by-Country/2015#.WA9vvdx_9qw.
2. For examples of their conspicuous consumption, see Yi-Ling Liu, “China’s Nouveau Riches Have Landed on America’s Campuses,” Foreign Policy, September 1, 2015, foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/01/chinas-nouveau-riche-have-landed-on-americas-campuses/; for academic dishonesty, see Yingyi Ma, “Academic Integrity: A Key Cross Cultural Issue for Chinese Students Overseas,” United Planet, January 17, 2013, www.unitedplanet.org/blog/2013/01/17/academic-integrity-a-key-cross-cultural-issue-for-chinese-students-overseas. For reactions from other students, see Jasmine Bernstein Yin, “The Chinese Elite at Columbia,” Columbia Spectator, December 14, 2015, features.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2015/12/14/the-chinese-elite-at-columbia/, and the following discussion: spc.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2015/12/16/letter-editor-write-whatever-dont-involve-all-china.
3. See Institution of International Education, “Educational Exchange.” [End Page 566]
4. While some universities have started offering orientation courses to better accommodate large numbers of international undergrads, some courses were found to be haunted by “homogenizing cultural assumptions about ‘culturally discrete’ populations, celebratory images of US diversity, and exclusionary visions of national belongings in students’ home countries” (Christina Owens and Abigail Boggs, “The Global American Studies Classroom: International Students and Critical Pedagogy,” American Quarterly 68.2 : 382). Instead of helping international students adapt to new environments, these pedagogical practices sometimes reinforced the boundary between the American and the international students. For detailed discussion, see Owens and Boggs, “Global American Studies Classroom.”
5. See Julia Wang, “The Burden of Being Asian American on Campus,” Atlantic, August 15, 2016, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/08/common-ancestry-complicated-present/495665/.
6. This refers to the online display of some Japanese woodblock prints produced as propaganda during the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, as part of the “Visualizing Cultures” project for pedagogical purpose by the professors John W. Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa at MIT in 2006. For discussion on the controversies in a critical context, see Winnie Wong and Jing Wang, eds., “Reconsidering MIT Visualizing Cultures Controversy,” special issue, positions: asia critique 23.1 (2015).
7. Orville Schell, “China: Humiliation and the Olympics,” New York Review of Books, August 14, 2008, www.nybooks.com/articles/2008/08/14/china-humiliation-the-olympics/.
9. See a recent announcement issued by a Chinese parent organization in Fairfax, Virginia, capafc. org/2016/10/capafc-condemns-disparaging-comments-against-fcps-board-member/; this incident, together with others of the same kind, has been reported widely in the Chinese-language media.
10. For analyses of recent Chinese immigrants’ support of Trump, see Kate Linthicum, “Meet the Chinese American Immigrants Who Are Supporting Donald Trump,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2016, www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-asian-voters-20160527-snap-story.html; Jiangtao Shi and Catherine Wong, “Why Are Recent Chinese Immigrants Supporting Trump?,” South China Morning Post, October 9, 2016, www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2026127/why-are-recent-chinese-immigrants-supporting-trump; Isaac Stone Fish, “A Trump Supporter Dwells in Beijing,” Atlantic, October 21, 2016, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/10/trump-china-beijing-muslim-clinton-republican-democrat/504917/.
11. See Institution of International Education, “Educational Exchange.”
12. See Shao Li, “Does Racial Consciousness Matter When Asians Vote?,” CNPolitics, cnpolitics.org/2016/10/race-based-considerations-and-the-obama-vote/; Wang Peinan, “Why Did the Confucius Institutes Bump into Resistance Overseas?,” CNPolitics, cnpolitics.org/2016/10/communicating-china-to-the-world/; Luo Sihang, “Are Liberalism and Nationalism Compatible?,” CNPolitics, cnpolitics.org/2016/09/nationalism/.
13. See Jinyan Zeng, “China’s Feminist Five: This Is the Worst Crackdown on Lawyers, Activists, and Scholars in Decades,” Guardian, April 17, 2015, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/apr/17/chinas-feminist-five-this-is-the-worst-crackdown-on-lawyers-activists-and-scholars-in-decades/.
14. See Kim Wall, “When China’s Feminists Came to Washington,” Foreign Policy, January 25, 2017, foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/25/when-chinas-feminists-came-to-washington-womens-march-feminist-five-activism/.
15. Initial experiments in this direction have already started in several universities. For reflections and discussions about how American studies have played a crucial role in such programs, see Owens and Boggs, “Global American Studies Classroom.” [End Page 567]