Chinese international students find themselves in the crosshairs of col- lapsing US-China relations.
*All names with an asterisk are pseudonyms. These interviewees have requested anonymity for a variety of reasons — mainly because of uncertain U.S. visa statuses or fear of identification for political reasons.
On March 17, Chen* began his eighteen-hour journey from New York City to Guangdong. For weeks, experts had pinpointed New York as the next COVID-19 epicenter, and rumors swirled of an imminent lockdown. His parents asked him to come home. Chen made a list of pros and cons, then booked a flight set to take off from JFK a day later. Before he left the city, he emptied his Upper West Side apartment—where he’d lived for half a year as a graduate student at Columbia—leaving behind only nonessential books, clothes, and furniture, packing as if he would never return.
Three months after arriving home, Chen booked a visa renewal appointment with the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou. His F-1 visa—the student visa which had granted him a year’s stay in the U.S.—was expiring in August. Mere days before his appointment, he received an email from the U.S. Embassy, notifying him of his appointment’s cancelation. Not just his, but all immigrant and non-immigrant visa appointments at every U.S. embassy in China from June 8 through June 26 had been suspended. The reason provided by the email was limited staffing due to the pandemic.
Chen tried to reschedule the appointment. But whenever he checked the website, no appointment slots were available for F-1 visa holders. For the past two months, he has been regularly scouring the website, looking for an opening. There have been none. He has called the U.S. Embassy three times, seeking clarity, but has received ambiguous responses each time, Embassy representatives saying it is ultimately up to American authorities. His visa expired on Friday, August 14.
Since the first U.S. COVID-19 case was reported in late January, U.S.-China relations—already shaky from a two-year-long trade war—have only continued to deteriorate. The two powers have clashed on every significant frontier, from technology to trade, national sovereignty to human rights, and the pandemic has only amplified pre-existing tensions. Both countries have, at some point, blamed the origins of the virus on the other. President Trump’s popularization of terms like the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” has also proven incendiary, as incidents of Covid-related anti-Asian racism surge worldwide.
Students from both sides are getting caught in the crosshairs of the two countries’ disputes. Chen isn’t alone in struggling with visa issues—the lives of Chinese students in the U.S. have been upended by recent China-specific policies that endanger student visa procurement and renewal. And with the cancelation of intercultural programs like the Peace Corps and Fulbright in China, American students hoping to strengthen their understanding of China and forge transnational connections are being denied the opportunities to do so. All of these are signifiers of an ominous trend—what experts are calling a complete decoupling of the U.S. and China, and perhaps even a new Cold War.
The stakes of visa approval are especially heightened for Chinese citizen and Yale Law School student Yao Lin. Yao is 36, bespectacled and effortlessly eloquent, a Chinese national from the coastal province of Fujian. He speaks to me from his study in New Haven, a teal, light-soaked room lined with shelves of books stacked like Jenga blocks, occasionally pausing to soothe the fussy 2-year-old on his lap. He says he cannot return to China anytime soon, as he fears the fall-out from his history of political activism.
For years, Yao advocated in China for feminism, LGBTQIA+ rights, and migrant workers without facing much backlash from the government. Then came his criticisms of President Xi Jinping’s policies. He wrote his critiques publicly on WeChat, Weibo, and Douban, and even authored an op-ed for a Hong Kong-based website. In 2017, he denounced the government’s eviction of millions of migrant workers from Beijing, and a year later, the removal of term limits to Xi’s presidency.
In 2018, he was invited by Peking University to teach a summer course on political philosophy. But a few days before the course was scheduled to begin, the department told him he was no longer allowed to teach the class, per a verbal order from the Ministry of Education. A substitute teacher replaced him. Yao knew then that his teaching career in China was over.
Under President Xi’s administration, academics who have spoken out against the government have faced severe consequences. Xu Zhangrun and Zhang Xuezhong, professors and vocal critics of the Chinese government, are prominent examples of this trend. Xu and Zhang believe they were fired by their respective universities, and since had their teaching privileges suspended because of their criticism of one-party rule, the removal of term limits to the Chinese presidency, and the government’s Covid-19 response. In the last few months, they were both detained by Chinese authorities for unclear reasons, but have since been released.
For fear of similar treatment, Yao decided to leave China. At that point, he had already been admitted to Yale Law School, so he decided to join his wife Yuan in New Haven. Yuan had already been studying at Yale for five years, pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and caring for their young children. In 2018, Yao reunited with his family. As he and his wife progressed through graduate school, they planned for careers in American academia.
They worried for several months, fearing the visa approval would never come. On July 7, finally, Yuan’s OPT application was approved. “If the approval didn’t come by the end of July, she would have lost her job,” Yao said.
That means, for now, they get to stay. Yuan will be an Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University this semester, teaching philosophy courses remotely. Yao will complete his final year of law school, and apply for an OPT himself this time next year. The U.S. has become their home. Their children, a girl and a boy, both born in America, know no other country as well as this one. But as a family, they continue to hold their breath.
“These small things have a day-to-day psychological effect on us,” Yao said. “Even if all of these difficulties can be resolved, we live in constant anxiety, fear and worry.”
As students in STEM, Yale School of Medicine postdoctoral student Zhao* and third-year graduate student Xu* are among the cohort of Chinese students who are especially scrutinized by the U.S. government.
Over the past few months, the Trump administration has made significant political moves that indicate a growing suspicion of Chinese students, especially those studying STEM. In May, President Trump issued a presidential proclamation banning Chinese graduate students and researchers suspected of ties to the Chinese military from entering the country on a F- or J-visa. In June, Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn introduced the SECURE CAMPUS Act to Congress. The bill would effectively bar Chinese students from receiving visas to the U.S. for graduate or postgraduate studies in STEM fields.
Senators Cotton and Blackburn have increasingly accused China of intellectual property theft and espionage. After the contents of the SECURE CAMPUS Act were released in May, Senator Blackburn tweeted: “Beijing exploits student and research visas to steal science, technology, engineering and manufacturing secrets from U.S. academic and research institutions. We’ve fed China’s innovation drought with American ingenuity and taxpayer dollars for too long; it’s time to secure the U.S. research enterprise against the CCP’s economic espionage.”
Zhao and Xu understand that their identities as Chinese graduate students in STEM might complicate their visa renewal processes.
Zhao hasn’t been home in the past two years, ever since he first left northeastern China for America. This year, he’d planned on finally returning home—his sister is getting married—but the pandemic, coupled with the current political climate, has changed his mind.
His J-1 visa expired in April of last year, and going home would mean having to get it renewed in order to re-enter the U.S. He feared the visa renewal process would be prolonged by his being a Chinese STEM student—the exact demographic Senator Cotton and his political allies are trying to exclude from the country—and couldn’t take the risk of being stranded in China indefinitely. “I am still working on my [research] project. I need to take care of my lab mice,” he said. “If I go back to China for one or two months and then can’t come back because of visa problems, it will be terrible for me.”
Due to similar fears, Xu, who is from inner Mongolia, hasn’t gone home recently either. Her F-1 visa expired last year.
“Science graduate students [from China] have always had a hard time applying for visas,” said Xu. “But now, the situation is getting worse. I’ve heard of [postdoctoral students] being sent back to China even though their research is not at all military-related. They worked in biology, like me, and I have no clue why they were in that situation. My friends and I are really worried that our research or our lives will be affected by these new, unpredictable policies.”
Zhao is perplexed by the political rhetoric villainizing Chinese STEM students like him. “Scientists have nationalities, but science itself doesn’t have nationalities,” he said. “For me, I come from China, but with the science I am doing now, it’s beyond countries.” He paused for a moment. “That’s how we think of it in the scientific community, anyway.”
Buried in President Trump’s July 14 executive order addressing Beijing’s installation of a National Security Law in Hong Kong is a provision ending the Fulbright exchange programs in Hong Kong and China. The programs’ cancelation came six months after the Peace Corps withdrew from China without so much as a press release.
Grace Jin ’20 was supposed to leave for Hangzhou in March 2021. She’d spent a year applying for the Fulbright Program in China, and learned of her acceptance this April. As a Global Affairs major who’d been on the pre-med track, she’d wanted to do public health field work before starting medical school. “I wanted to apply all of the research skills I had learned at Yale to a project in a community that I was a part of,” said Jin.
Her project on population aging and community-based care for elderly populations was to be conducted in Hangzhou, the capital city of the province she’d called home from first to fifth grade. She saw it as her chance to engage with the community near her grandparents’ hometown.
In mid-July, Jin learned of Fulbright China’s cancelation reading the news on the President’s July 14 executive order. But she wasn’t certain of the program’s termination until an official email from the Fulbright Commission confirmed her suspicions. The email cited the President’s executive order and provided no further explanation.
Although she was disappointed, Jin wasn’t surprised by the news. She believes both governments are heading toward a complete decoupling and rejection of diplomacy. “There are a lot of ideological conflicts [between the two countries] to be dealt with seriously, but ending a program like Fulbright, which is necessary for understanding, is counterproductive,” she said.
Joyce Wang ’17, a 2017-2018 Fulbright China participant, had loved her experience with Fulbright, during which she researched mental health outcomes for “left-behind children” in Changsha, Hunan. “People in Fulbright understand that China can be the aggressor,” said Wang. “I am so angered and disappointed by the program’s cancelation because I don’t see the point of it. I don’t know how Fulbright China’s cancelation helps the situation in Hong Kong.”
But she’s inspired by the support gathering around Fulbright. A Change.org petition imploring the President to restore the Fulbright China and Hong Kong programs has accumulated 2,379 signatures as of September 5.
This year’s cohorts of Fulbright China and Hong Kong participants have been given the option of being reassigned to a different host country and have until August 21 to submit new proposals. Jin is considering the programs in Taiwan and Singapore.
“Honestly, Fulbright brings disproportionate benefits to the U.S.,” Jin said. “In addition to academic exchange, it can use citizen diplomacy abroad to increase understanding of American culture, history and politics.”
As a Chinese-American, Jin is concerned about domestic anti-Chinese xenophobia, as well as zero-sum confrontation on the global stage. She said, “Ending Fulbright, a program meant to foster mutual understanding, it’s the ultimate sign that U.S.-China relations have reached a point of no return.”
From their homes in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and New Haven, twelve Chinese students express to me that it’s getting harder for them to be in America, and to justify to themselves and others their desire to be in this country.
They are acutely aware of anti-Asian racism: every single one of them knows someone who’s experienced it. Yao mentions an incident at Pho Ketkeo, a Laotian and Thai restaurant on Temple Street in New Haven, where a vandal dented the restaurant owner’s car and wrecked the windshield of a server’s vehicle in April. Like the server and restaurant owner, he suspects that the vandalism was racially-motivated, part of a larger trend of anti-Asian hate crimes increasing in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.
Li*, a third-year graduate student at the Yale School of Medicine, has been the victim of two racially-charged events in the past year. At the end of March, a passerby who encountered Li on her walk back home from East Rock yelled, “Fuck you, stupid Chinese people bringing the coronavirus here, go back to your country.” A year ago, on York Street in downtown New Haven, a man pointed at Li and exclaimed to the whole street, “A spy! A spy!”
These students were all enticed to come to the U.S. for different reasons: the promise of a liberal arts education, intellectual opportunities they weren’t exposed to at home, and a desire to broaden their horizons and see another part of the world. Now, many of them are exploring alternative plans in the event that U.S.-China relations worsen: Europe, Canada. Or simply going home.
Yao tells me that watching the two countries deepen their rift has been heartbreaking. He disagrees with many of the U.S. administration’s immigration policies, and opposes China’s recent actions against Hong Kong as well as the mass internment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. “The two countries I love, the two countries I want to make better, seem to be going the directions I abhor,” he says. “But what can I say, what can I do? There’s an old Chinese saying that humans do their best and leave the rest to the heavens.”