At first, the declining number of Chinese international students in the United States might be chalked up as another COVID-19 misfortune. The timeline does match: in a sobering report, The Wall Street Journal notes that the number of Chinese international students in the United States has decreased dramatically, reaching all-time lows between 2019-2022. While some, such as Allan Goodman, the CEO of the Institute of International Education, claim that historical precedent indicates a quick rebound in overall international student enrollment post-pandemic, U.S.-China tensions and geopolitical influences on academia will prevent or elongate the return of Chinese students to the status quo if left alone, costing American universities significantly in both innovation and research as well as tuition. 

An increasingly tense U.S.-China relationship has caused the United States to turn its blistering gaze to its academic sector. In 2018, the United States launched the China Initiative, which targeted faculty and researchers, accusing them of being Chinese spies. In 2020, thousands of visas belonging to Chinese students were revoked due to being “security risks,” making it harder for students to study in the United States As if that weren’t enough, at the height of the pandemic, remote classes were deemed insufficient to maintain an F-1 visa. Students were trapped between a rock and a hard place: they could return home and forgo their visa, or they could stay in the States and take a hastily created “in-person class” to ensure that their travel documents would not be invalidated. Visa issues aside, COVID-19 has also brought forth a wave of anti-Asian hate in Western countries, even more daunting as the Chinese media exacerbates the extremities and brutality of hate crime in the United States. Yet contrary to popular belief, students haven’t stopped applying abroad. Rather, the fear of contracting COVID-19 and thinly veiled anti-Chinese policies create an interesting geopolitical phenomenon: students who could afford to study abroad began shifting their sights to destinations like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan in unprecedented numbers

There has been an observed shift from Western universities during times of crises such as the US, UK, and Australia (yellow) to ones closer to home (red) like Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore

These locations aren’t a coincidence. “When health and safety concerns begin to rise,” Lingnan University Chair of Comparative Policy Joseph Mok Ka-Ho explains, “proximity becomes an important determinant [when students decide where to study abroad].” This clarifies where Chinese students are going but lends no credence to the longevity of such a trend. However, health and safety aren’t just limited to COVID-19—it also pertains to concerns about war and militarization. “One Taiwanese international student I talked to in Japan wanted to stay close [to home] because he was worried about U.S.-China tensions leading to war,” Professor Mok-Ka Ho states. Concerns such as these are contingent on the stability of the U.S.-China relationship; as it gets worse, the desire to go further abroad diminishes. 

A Fun Zero-Sum Game With No Winners and A Lot of Losers

This turn from the West to Asia, alongside the visa barriers, has costly implications for the United States, whose higher education sector and academic industrial complex will be hit hard by the drop of Chinese international students. Back in 2015, Business Insider stated that Chinese internationals account for 28% of all annual tuition revenue despite being only 18% of the student population. Declining visas and interests in U.S. academic institutions would be a vicious financial blow to colleges, limiting financial aid to domestic students, thus raising barriers to education. The loss of future patents and innovations generated by Chinese internationals also puts a sizeable dent in potential U.S. gains. The National Foundation for American Policy confirms that every 1000 Ph. D.s blocked by the U.S. annually will equate to an estimated 210 billion dollars in the expected value of patents produced in universities and one billion dollars in lost tuition in the next decade. “There is so much to gain from [patent and research] collaboration,” Professor Mok Ka-Ho tells me. “Unfortunately, the United States treats research as a zero-sum game.” 

This growing acceptance of the zero-sum game mentality is the exact root of the issue. That China’s gain is presupposed by the U.S.’s loss and vice versa has spearheaded many of the visa barriers and policies above. It is also likely the rationale behind why President Joe Biden has not yet revoked visa policies set by his predecessor President Donald Trump, casting a foreboding shadow over the future of Chinese students. The massive amount of media coverage on the recent Chinese “spy” balloon and increased “China Threat” rhetoric implies too that a hard-line stance against China is becoming the popular hill for politicians to die on. 

It comes at an intangible cost as well—this fear of being discriminated against hurts the potential for collaboration across international communities, stifling innovations that could benefit more than just a singular country. From 2020 to 2021, during the infamous China Initiative, the number of American-trained researchers of Chinese nationality who dropped their U.S. academic or corporate affiliation rose by 23%, largely attributed to the chilling effect created by an “anti-Chinese atmosphere” in higher academia. In the same survey, the Asian American Scholar Forum also discovered a consensus that it had become harder for U.S. universities to recruit top Chinese students than five years ago. In other words, the United States is simultaneously losing international connections it could have established via its alumni while disincentivizing international students from studying in its institutions. All in the name of “winning” the innovation war against China. And while the China Initiative concluded in 2023, the politically-charged anti-China sentiment hasn’t. 

In the wake of the end of the China Initiative in February 2022, the Asian American Scholar Forum polled 1,354 U.S. university faculty members, many U.S. citizens of Chinese descent. It revealed a chilling effect that lingered in the academic community, even after the Initiative’s repeal. This graphic was created using information provided by the AASF

How the U.S. Academic Sector Might Be Patching Holes in a Leaking Roof

In truth, the future of the relationship between U.S. academic institutions and Chinese international students isn’t set in stone. COVID-19, despite not being the only catalyst for plunging applications, was a significant factor, and there is a resurgence in applications compared to the social distancing years. How fast this resurgence is occurring is a different question. There is also a bit of a “push” element occurring in China. Critics point to how the zero-COVID policy has aggravated public dissent toward the Xi administration, potentially providing credibility to Western thinking and institutions. Youth unemployment rates in China have reached all-time highs, soaring to 18.1% this February. Millions of graduates have rushed to sign up to take the 2023 Chinese national civil service exams as the search for stable employment grows bleaker. All of these factors may be the augury for a surge of human capital leaving China in the future. 

But if there is anything to learn, it is the thought process that commits an error of the binary that is so prevalent in the international student discussion. Abroad doesn’t necessarily mean the United States. As the influx of international students to Eastern universities suggests, there are so many other options that people can choose from besides the United States and China. Still, most Chinese families hold American universities in high regard, says Marie Tang, a senior at the University of Southern California from Chongqing, China. Prestige continues to entice as it always has. But will this prestige have enough of a hold to return the rate of international Chinese students to the heights they once soared at? In the off-chance that it is not, it may be up to the U.S. academic sector to create incentives that outweigh the benefits of pursuing higher education elsewhere, since it looks like the U.S. government won’t be of help anytime soon. They can start with financial aid. 

The University of Southern California, which has one of the highest numbers of Chinese international students in the country. It is also one of the most expensive universities in the United States.

“Socio-economic class matters,” affirms Tang. “The common thought is you can go [to school] abroad if you’re really smart or can afford it. And it’s cheaper to go somewhere nearby [like Hong Kong] than the UK or U.S.” Universities can increase scholarships for international students, helping surmount the exorbitant tuition costs which most masters and undergraduate students pay in full. Increased efforts in international recruitment may also be crucial, especially if relations continue to sour and students grow more apprehensive about the news they are receiving on U.S. conditions. Most important is the navigation of the visa system. With the political climate changing so rapidly, investing in officers that help students with documentation is vital in reassuring applicants that they do not get caught in the crossfire as they did during the pandemic. 

Whether or not these solutions will patch the gap is hard to say. What is clear is that the rockier U.S.-China relations become, the more the U.S. hurts its higher education industry. And the longer it takes for the industry to recover, the more the academic sector has to entice Chinese students back to their programs. Historical precedent is great. But for Chinese students, these are unprecedented times.