Chinese students make up a large proportion of international students in the world. Since the beginning of the reform and opening-up policies in 1978, more than 5.2 million Chinese have studied abroad. In 2018, more than 662,000 students left China to pursue higher education elsewhere.1 The majority of them headed for Anglophone countries, with the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia being the top choices.2 At American universities, Chinese students make up nearly one third of foreign students.3
Research has identified a variety of motivations behind Chinese students’ decisions to study abroad. Education in highly developed countries is generally considered as of better quality by Chinese students and parents.4 The fierce competition for top-notch universities in China pressures many to look for alternatives abroad. The desire to broaden the horizon, pursue personal development and gain a competitive edge on the Chinese job market also plays a role.5
European non-Anglophone countries are also becoming more popular among Chinese students: In 2018 there were almost 37,000 Chinese students enrolled in German universities, which makes them the largest group (13 percent) of international students.6
Germany has attracted Chinese students for its strength in technical and engineering fields.7 Many student returnees from Germany later became influential decision makers in their home country: for example, Lu Yongxiang, Vice-Chairman of China’s National People’s Congress and a member of the National manufacturing Strategy Advisory Committee, holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from RWTH Aachen University. Wan Gang, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the former Minister of Science and Technology, obtained his PhD at Technical University Clausthal.
Chinese overseas students used to be wooed by host countries, partly because the tuition they paid contributed significant revenue to their educational institutions and their economies. In the US, they contributed an estimated USD 13 billion revenue to the economy in 2017-2018.8 In Germany tuition is not the main factor; some universities have been recruiting an increasing number of international (mostly Chinese) students as a response to declining enrollment rates caused by demographic change.9
Recently, however, Chinese students in a number of Western countries have found themselves in the center of conflicts. Outside China, they are increasingly under suspicion of being agents of CCP political influence or of gathering intelligence and engaging in intellectual property theft. From China, they face growing pressure to commit to patriotism and protect China’s interests abroad; otherwise they have to fear punishment back home. Last year, for instance, clashes between mainland Chinese students and supporters of the Hong Kong protest movement in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the UK triggered international media coverage about their ideological standpoints.10
Several incidents in the past years have raised concerns that CCP influence could threaten academic freedom in Western liberal democracies. In 2017, Chinese students at Durham University in the UK complained to university’s officials about the invitation of Anastasia Lin, a former World Miss Canada and a human right advocate, to participate in an event hosted by the student debating society.11 Across the Atlantic at the University of California San Diego, Chinese students protested their university's invitation to the Dalai Lama as a keynote speaker.12 There were also cases of Chinese students challenging CCP-critical statements of professors or in textbooks on Taiwan’s status.13
Recently, Chinese overseas students in the United States have been particularly affected by distrust almost reminiscent of past campaigns against communism. Based on individual cases, the administration of US President Donald Trump deems US universities vulnerable targets for Chinese economic espionage and intellectual property theft.14 The FBI issued warnings calling Chinese students and scholars potential “nontraditional collectors of intelligence.”15 Since June 2018, the US has been restricting visa for Chinese citizens in fields such as robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing.16 However, these measures raised heated debates over undue “racial profiling” and an exclusion of talents who might potentially also contribute to scientific innovation in the US.17
Besides the suspicion encountered abroad, Chinese overseas students also risk being punished at home for activities deemed unpatriotic. For example, a student’s praise of US liberalism – and air quality – in her commencement speech at University of Maryland was sharply criticized by Chinese social and party-state media.18 In January 2020, a student at the University of Minnesota was sentenced to six months in prison after returning to China during a term break. He had published tweets critical of Chinese president Xi Jinping while in the United States.19
A number of scholars have investigated the existence and scope of the Chinese state’s political influencing of overseas students. A large-scale survey in American higher education institutions conducted by the Wilson Center in 2019 identified ways in which Chinese diplomats and students infringed on the academic freedom in the US. However, it also stressed that negative examples documented in the study merely represented “a tiny proportion” of the student body and warned that “any suggestion that all or most PRC students are CCP agents is appallingly broad and dangerously inaccurate.”20
A 2018 report by the Leiden Asia Center found no evidence of concerted political influencing activities by the Chinese government on Chinese overseas students and researchers in Europe but acknowledged signs that Chinese students abroad are subjected to increasing control from the political center.21 Implicitly targeting China, the Australian federal government has created a taskforce to investigate foreign interference in universities and released a guideline on how to build resilience in November 2019.22
This study was conducted to find out more about Chinese overseas students’ opinions about contentious issues involving China. With a survey and interviews conducted among students of PRC citizenship at institutions of higher education across Germany in 2018, the author of this MERICS China Monitor tries to present a more nuanced picture of the mindsets of this group and better understand their ideological stances.