Chinese students waving their national flags vie for attention at a graduation ceremony. Photo: Weibo

More than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers in American universities have had their visas revoked, a little over four months after Donald Trump threatened to banish suspected Chinese spies under the cloak of studying. 

Chinese ministries responsible for education and foreign affairs confirmed on Thursday that many students and their parents had sought assistance. The ministries promised to help the many students in the US defend their right to stay.

Would-be students whose plans to study in the US had been upset have been offered alternative pathways to courses and degrees. 

The US State Department said also that more than 1,000 Chinese students, mostly “high-risk” postgraduate and postdoctoral students, had been banned from entering.  

The Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) said, “Canceling visas for Chinese students and delaying the issue of new ones are moves of blatant division and racism.

“The US government is smearing Chinese students and ensnaring them in political wrangling.”

The BIT said a dozen postgraduate students and scholars could not go to the US on exchange programs because the US pared back the number of student visas issued through its Beijing embassy. 

More than 1,000 Chinese students have had their US visas revoked so far. Photo: Weibo

Most of the Chinese students and visiting scholars affected allegedly have links with the People’s Liberation Army and may harvest data or spy for the Chinese military. These academics mainly attend courses or join research projects in the US entailing sensitive and proprietary dual-use technologies that can be converted or replicated for military use. 

An internal memo uploaded on to the intranet of China’s Education Ministry seen by Asia Times noted that those affected were mainly from the seven universities and institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the successor of the now-defuncted State Commission of National Defense Science and Technology.

These institutions include the BIT, Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin Engineering University, Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and Beihang University in Beijing, known for its extensive defense and aerospace technology programs.

The China News Service also quoted an Education Ministry official as saying that even young students who just graduated from high schools managed by these universities had also been caught in the visa clampdown. 

“It would be rather far-fetched to suggest these teenagers who are yet to become freshmen at US colleges have already been recruited by the PLA to snoop on American scientists or steal top secrets,” said the official from the ministry’s international exchange division. 

Chinese students at Columbia University in New York celebrating their graduation. Photo: Xinhua

On a forum popular among Chinese students in the US, many said they were now in limbo after getting e-mails from the US embassy in Beijing this week notifying the cancellations of their visas, although some revealed that the embassy said they could start their application anew, and previous cancelations would not affect the adjudication of their fresh applications. 

Other than the fact that many American states are still in the grip of Covid-19, the Beijing-Washington power-play on many fronts is putting an additional dent in the appeal of US institutions as well as the determination of Chinese students and their parents, when they wonder if they should pursue a degree in a country that has made China its arch-rival.    

The visa revocations mark the depth of the freeze in ties between the two powers and many Chinese students expect a frosty reception even if they can enter the US. There has already been a 30% drop of applications filed to US universities in the first half of the year, according to the Shanghai center of China’s leading overseas study consultancy New Oriental.

Beijing’s ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said at the beginning of the year that there were more than 370,000 Chinese students in the US during the academic year of 2018-19, the largest group of foreign students enrolled in American schools for courses of undergraduate degrees or higher.  

These Chinese students contributed US$14 billion to the US economy, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education. 

The prickly China-US ties have, however, offered an opportunity for Chinese universities and Western ones that run branches and campuses in the country to entice students to instead study at home. 

The University of Nottingham’s China campus in Ningbo in eastern China. Photo: Handout

The University of Nottingham’s China campus in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo, the first such joint venture between a western institution and a Chinese entity, has just announced an admission scheme to woo students who have secured an offer from any of the world’s top 100 universities but are agonizing over their future amid visa or Covid-19 travel restrictions. 

In ads since September, the university has promised streamlined application procedures, quick admission, guaranteed overseas exchange programs and UK-accredited diplomas for elite students turned away by stricter US visa vetting. 

There is indeed a frenzy of activity for other similar universities in the race, encouraged by local governments in their bids to retain students. The New York University Shanghai, the Chinese University of Hong Kong Shenzhen, the University of Liverpool Suzhou and Kean University Wenzhou, among others, have all launched programs to cater for such students. 

NYU Shanghai’s admission office told Asia Times that, even though bilateral tensions had become more fraught, being the first US university running a campus in China, NYU would still benefit from the shifting tendency when Chinese students prefer to study at home but still want an authentic American experience.

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