Last academic year, American colleges and universities hosted approximately one million international students, 363,000 of whom were Chinese nationals. A decade prior, enrollment from the People’s Republic of China totaled 81,000.
Amid criticism from the U.S. government, educational administrators instinctively justify Chinese enrollment in terms of American interests. Yet their explanations overlook potential drawbacks to admitting Chinese nationals en masse.
The burgeoning Sino-American great-power rivalry has led some to sound the alarm about these students. As Vice President Mike Pence said at the Hudson Institute last October, Beijing employs a “whole-of-government approach” while pursuing its national interests within the United States, which includes intellectual property theft, cyberwarfare, and propaganda.
One positive factor is that educating Chinese students grows U.S. soft power. As they immerse themselves in American institutions, Chinese students encounter the very values that the Communist Party represses with unyielding resolve back home: those of academic freedom, individual liberty, and human rights. This liberalizing influence is a welcome check on Beijing’s Orwellian ambitions.
Although many of these students may wish America well, the Communist Party leadership certainly does not. Chinese IP theft costs the U.S. economy a staggering $225-600 billion each year (Microsoft alone loses $10 billion), and cyberwarfare inflicts even more damage. Bill Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told CBS News last year that China has launched an “economic war” against the United States and represents “the largest threat to our national security, bar none.”
Chinese espionage is a grave threat that demands a vigilant response from American society. The good news is that the U.S. government is doing more in response to China’s military and economic aggression. The bad news is that American colleges and universities are not.
In welcoming such large numbers of Chinese nationals as students, the United States imperils its own technological edge over China. Chinese nationals receive world-class instruction here, in the hard sciences and other fields, and then return home. The Trump administration has indicted Communist Party operatives who have infiltrated U.S. networks, while Chinese researchers working for American companies have been stealing proprietary information. Intelligence officials said in early February that Chinese students are doing the same. In light of these revelations, is it a good idea to allow Chinese students unfettered access to American university laboratories?
Beyond student espionage, observers are wary of Chinese influence for other reasons. A recent Hoover Institution report discusses how Chinese government influence has spread throughout our colleges and universities. Funding provided by government-run Confucius Institutes, which disseminate Communist Party propaganda on over 100 campuses, induces their host institutions to be less critical of China. In another worrisome trend, Communist Party branches have sprung up on campuses across the country. As Chinese enrollment has skyrocketed, a degree of self-censorship on all things China now exists on college campuses.
One way forward may be to incentivize Chinese nationals to remain in the United States following their studies. In last year’s State of the Union address, President Trump called for a merit-based immigration system that prioritizes high-skilled workers. The U.S. government should instead grant more visas to Chinese students with advanced STEM degrees. One survey showed that 87 percent of Chinese doctoral students would like to remain in the United States after receiving their degrees. It does not do us well to train China’s future leaders, only to have them return home and potentially use that technology against this country.
At a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray called on America to employ a “whole of society response” in combating Chinese threats. Defenses of international education conceal the not-insignificant costs of admitting hundreds of thousands of students from a rival power capable of threatening U.S. strategic interests.
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