Home » featured, hudson lockett's travel blog

Return baggage: The impact of Chinese studying abroad

By 25 June 2009 No Comment

At the fair: Study abroad candidates weigh the options at a recent event in Xi'an | Photo by Hudson Lockett

“I think at first, I just thought it was really inconvenient for me,” Zhou Shuang said of China’s Internet-filtering policies, which intensified nationwide in late May and early June during the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the government’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

A year ago, Zhou was studying public affairs at a university in the United States and uninterested in the roots of China’s Internet censorship. Close to the end of her graduate studies, Zhou said she was slightly irked when she visited China on holiday and found access to certain sites, such as Blogspot, blocked by Chinese firewalls.

Now back in Beijing since May, she is suffering from a form of culture shock in readjusting to a less independent lifestyle while living with her parents, concepts of public modesty unfamiliar to American life and the city’s terrible traffic congestion. Preparing for another sojourn to the U.S. for a master’s degree, Zhou knows full well the significance of the June 4 Internet censorship – she was out with friends on the most recent anniversary, discussing it over dinner.

Put simply, the government has succeeded in all but erasing the events of June 4, 1989 from popular memory in China. Starting in late April of that year, tens of thousands of citizens gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the passing of a pro-reform former government leader. Over the course of about a month, the nonviolent gathering in Beijing grew into a pro-democracy movement so large that party leaders decided to deploy tens of thousands of troops from the People’s Liberation Army to violently rout the squatters.

Zhou said she and her friends, some of whom have studied abroad in Hong Kong, all fully support most of the government’s policies today. In light of the widely known account of the event prevalent in Western media outlets for the past two decades, however, they found little logic in such extreme filtering measures. Having watched news reports and documentaries on Tiananmen while abroad, including the FRONTLINE-produced “Tank Man“, Zhou no longer sees the point in blocking information on it.“In this matter, we feel it makes us really look stupid,” she said.

This is precisely the type of change in how its citizens see the world that the Chinese government worries about. Fortunately for the country’s rulers, however, not everyone leaving China to study experiences this transformation. Despite a growing number of Chinese going abroad to the U.S. for college, they are not all doing so for the love of liberal Western political values nor are they necessarily bringing such ideas back to China. In fact, there are a number of factors operating against transformative experiences such as Zhou’s. As more students go abroad in pursuit of a better career, they may find it just as easy these days to do so without ever being forced to challenge their Chinese worldview.

According to 2008 figures from the China Scholarship Council, a nonprofit institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, a total of 144,000 students left the mainland to study abroad. And the most recent data available from the Institute of International Education show the United States as the top destination for Chinese citizens seeking to study at a university overseas – over 93,000 in 2006 alone.

A growing number of expat students are choosing to stay on after their studies are completed. “There’s no doubt there are a lot of Chinese students who aren’t going home,” said James Aldridge, China director for the Canadian Education Network. At a recent study abroad fair in Xi’an, Aldridge said relaxed visa policies in Canada and especially in the U.S. had made it easier for Chinese students not just to study abroad, but also to remain there after they complete their programs.

Yet Aldridge said he didn’t get the sense that students were going abroad – or staying there – out of a longing for any political freedoms denied them at home. Rather, they were motivated by the desire to lay the groundwork for successful careers given the fact that companies in China and the West were more likely to hire them because of their international experience.

“The ones that are or intend to [go] abroad [do so] because there’s this feeling they’ll be more marketable,” Aldridge said. And despite improvements in Chinese education, he added, a feeling persists among most Chinese that Western education is well worth the expense.

Tony Zeng is adamant about the  U.S.’s attraction for Chinese students’ families. Zeng, a representative for Canada’s York University English Language Institute, who was manning a booth at the same fair in Xi’an, said, “The U.S. is still considered the most desired [destination] for international education among Chinese families.” A Chinese citizen and York graduate, Zeng said that the U.S. had a draw for potential study abroad candidates in China that few other countries could match. From a practical standpoint he attributed it to the teaching of field-specific skills such as the application of critical thinking, which gives job applicants a competitive edge in an economically-minded China.

Zeng said that, as visa restrictions ease and more families become able to earn the disposable income necessary to afford sending their children there, “you will see more and more students choosing the U.S.”

Also easing the anxieties of those who would study abroad – while further insulating students from a transformative experience – is the rise of Chinese-language media accessibility via the Internet. Zeng said that those students unfamiliar with American culture and with little foreign language experience are unlikely to brave watching shows or reading news that depend on outside context. “Their solution is to stick to Chinese media,” Zeng said.

This phenomenon isn’t unusual, according to Chinese media expert Pan Zhangdong, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and visiting professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. “When they go abroad, [their] emotional center is in China,” Pan said.

As a result, critical coverage of China in the U.S. news media can sour Chinese international students on the whole of the Western press. Those who are used to seeing news through the nationalistic lens of government-owned media at home in China are more easily agitated by such stories, Pan said.

And in point of fact, said Pan, such reports do present a distorted picture of China thanks to the superficial efforts of news correspondents, who tend to concentrate on the developed and developing China as seen from Shanghai and Beijing rather than the vast poverty-stricken majority residing in the countryside. Pan, pessimistic about the overall state of China coverage, said he viewed such journalists as “accidental tourists.”

In some cases, Chinese students do become smitten with Western political ideas. Wang Yong, assistant editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Shanghai Daily, said he was exposed to what he considered the best of Western journalism well before he went abroad to study law at Stanford. “I was poisoned by American media a long time ago,” Wang said with a wry smile.

Wang said that beyond his exposure within China and language ability, his study of law had a significant effect on how much Western coverage of his home country he absorbed. But Wang was quick to point out that the degree to which students may experience a fundamental transformation of their worldviews “all depends on what kind of major you are taking.”

For Kang Xin, a first year graduate student in Xi’an who was accepted for study at the University of Missouri, that major is civil engineering. Preparing for a five-year stint abroad, Kang said he hoped to finish his dissertation while in the U.S., where he believes that compared to China, “technology and science are very strong, especially in my major.” Kang said he barely kept up with current events due to his course load, and only read the occasional newspaper while on holiday.

“Every day we’re always preparing for exams and experiments, we don’t have a lot of time for reading news,” he said.  Kang said he got most of his news through Baidu, the government-owned search engine whose scale and information services are akin to those of Google in the U.S.

Kang said students, especially those in graduate programs, had little trouble getting around Internet filters and blocking efforts like those that cropped up in China in early June. He also said he and students like him didn’t seek out “prolonged and tedious” coverage of China by Western sources.”We aren’t concerned too much about politics,” said Kang.

For Kang and other collegiate Chinese, study abroad may not pack the world-shattering punch often viewed as an inevitable part of living in the West. If current trends keep experiences like that of Zhou in the minority, then closing the gap in how China and the U.S. see the world and one another may take a lot longer than many observers in the U.S. had hoped.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.