Chinese students studying abroad bring change to China…but what kind?

Alia | April 8th, 2012 - 6:14 am

Recently, much news talked about the flood of Chinese students into US, UK, or just about any university in Western countries. Dow Jones Newswires gave an overview of about half a million Chinese filed applications to US graduate schools.  The Atlantic had a more interesting report on the growing tide of Chinese students pursuing undergraduate studies in US private colleges. Both expressed concerns over what change these troops of Chinese students may bring back home when they graduate.

“Just as the top echelons of the party battle over whether to continue down a path of reform, China’s youth are voting with their feet and getting western educations in rapidly rising numbers, possibly setting the stage for a fundamental shift in values as they return home,” concluded a recent Financial Times article.

Anti-CNN protest. Picture by The China Post

There will be shifts in values. That’s for sure. The question is…shift to where. More patriotic or more pro-West? For years, the assumption has been that Chinese students with oversea experiences will be key pro-West and pro-democracy forces in China when they go back to their home country.  But anyone who still remembers the waves of pro-China protests around the world during 2008 Olympic Torch Relay would agree that the picture is not all that rosy.

Returnee, a popular discussion board on MITBBS (a leading BBS for Chinese students in the US.), is where a lot of Chinese living in the US debate about the pros and cons of going back to China versus staying in the US. Most people’s biggest concern of going back is the cost of living, environment and children’s education. Freedom or democracy is seldom part of the discussion.

As Saobi (avatar name) summarized in his post comparing the different lifestyles in the two countries, “Unlike many intellectuals who like to talk about ‘universal values,’ ‘conscious citizen,’ ‘rule of law’ or ‘social responsibility’ when comparing China and the US, what I care about is everyday life.”

“I really don’t like those who use excuses such as environment, food safety, democracy or freedom of speech as reasons of not going back. All those are just facts. We all grew up in China and have been living there for years. That is China. We all know what it is like. If you can accept, then go back. If you cannot, then don’t.” Stephon commented on his view on living in China.

Indeed, the consensus on the discussion board is that if you are super talented, then you are OK to go back; if you are not so much talented but you or your family has guanxi, then you are OK to go back, too, but if you have neither talent nor guanxi, then stay in the US.

Most of the people who plan to go back do so because they want to be part of China’s economic boom. yitan commented on the bottom line of going back, “Go back if and only if your salary in China = your salary in the US * 6. If you want to enjoy the good things in China, also be prepared to deal with the ugly.”

Sea turtles, 海归, a term to describe Chinese students go back from aboard

More talked about how to get into existing systems and take advantage or how to compete with those who are already in those
systems. Very few mentioned wishes to build a better China when go back. PCC said in his post of how to seize the opportunity in China, “I heard a lot about people say they go back because they don’t want to miss the opportunity brought by China’s fast development, but how to define “opportunity”? Opportunity means though things are bad now, they have the potential to be better in the future. To be rich through corruption one day is opportunity. To be a university lecturer with 3000 yuan monthly income is bullshit.”

Does anyone cared about bringing change to China at all? Yes, there are…in another discussion board hosted on the same site – Military. Military board is probably the most popular one out of the sites’ several hundreds of boards, oftentimes having the biggest number of concurrent visitors.

Reading through comments on the board sometimes makes one feel that it is combination of Tea Party and Utopia, a pro-Mao leftist website in China (which was recently forced to shut down by Chinese government), not a website full of Chinese students in the US.

“The US has democracy controlled by Jewish bankers. China has nothing but the formality of democracy. I don’t like it when the US accuses China of not being a democracy because all they want is to take China down,” said shallow on his view on democracy.

A theme often heard on the board when it comes democracy is that Western style democracy is not the answer to China’s problems. As zxyybxx explained, “Democracy is good, but that doesn’t mean it fits everywhere. China has neither the economic base nor the cultural background for democracy.”

 Wayofflying expressed similar views in his lengthy post on why democracy doesn’t fit China, “China’s huge and diverse population plus limited natural recourses determine that democracy or any other seeming good systems that work fine in the West won’t work in China – they got easily abused. In China, people hate corruption because they don’t have a chance to be corrupted. People complain about power abuse because they are the victims of abuse. If they are in power, they will be more brutal. We study too much about the West, but too little of ourselves. Those who cry for democracy in China are just like those who try to build a house on floating ice. The only way to solve China’s problem is to gain more power on the international stage and to get resources such as land, water, oil, minerals and markets from around the globe.”

“The irony is that if China was a democracy, Bo Xilai would probably be voted the President. Absolute democracy in China will look like Culture Revolution – Chinese people go to extremes very easily,” added RoadforCN.

Smash imperialism conspiracy

On the other hand, they don’t seem to be happy about where China stands now, either. Most of them are disappointed that 1) Chinese government is too soft, especially to the US and 2) China is currently ruled by compradors who represent the benefits of Western businesses instead of that of the Chinese people. All such disappoints grow into a general anti-West, or more specifically, anti-US, sentiment. As moon6 said, “The West is unhappy, which means we [Chinese] are on the right track.”

“Now the West doesn’t even bother to hide their intension of slaughtering China. I don’t understand. Are those in power in China too coward or are they all traitors? Why can’t they see it?”  goldenratio expressed her view on SOE privatization in China. magicfinger2 is even more bitter, “To listen to US prescription for China is like to listen to a pimp’s advice on successful marriage. All they want is to have a piece of the cake. SOEs in China need reform, but privatization should never be part of it.”

For people on this board, such view as “China falls under the evil intension of the West” hasn’t really disappeared after years of living in the US.

When talking about Chinese students studying aboard, number matters. But what matters more is the kind of life they are living in the destination country, especially considering the fact that many of these students are from better-off families in China and used to live a privileged life back home. Are they happy? Can they blend in?

Chinese undergraduates at Ohio University

Sadly, for many, the answer is no. A lot of oversea Chinese students are constantly struggling to find their place in a foreign country. Due to cultural differences in pretty much every aspect of life, many oversea Chinese students live in very close Chinese-only cliques – they eat Chinese food, whether home-cooked or take-outs; they watch Chinese TV shows online; they use QQ instead of MSN; they are more active on Weibo than on Twitter; they post pictures on RenRen more often than on Facebook; they play Majiang or Three Kingdoms (popular board games in China) at home instead of getting drunk at parties. In one word, they try to live a very Chinese life while in a foreign country. And when they turn on TV or open newspapers, they see China-bashing news.

Of course, there will be the “I like it all in the West.” group, but these people are also more likely to try their best to stay rather than going back to China. For the rest, studying in a foreign country opens a door for them to view both China and the West under new light. Like Minna Jia said in his interview with New York Times, “Before I came here, I’m very liberal. But after I come here, my professor told me that I’m nationalist. I believe in democracy, but I can’t stand for someone to criticize my country using biased ways. You are wearing Chinese clothes and you are using Chinese goods.”

At the end of the day, this seemingly “so no to China” students may just as well grow into a group with “China can say no” attitudes.

[Click here to see more of Chinese students' lives at Ohio University]


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16 Responses to “Chinese students studying abroad bring change to China…but what kind?”

  1. [...] is a group that the US, or any other country, cannot afford to ignore. We already talked about why oversea Chinese students may not bring back home the freedom and openness they enjoy on foreign lands because of the [...]

  2. Bob M says:

    Brainwashing in the schools is a serious issue. People simply cannot overcome it. Once humans are taught life is a certain way at a young age, they are destined to believe it. All this shows is the effectiveness of brainwashing in the education system in China. Every country should reconsider an investment in China with a caveat of, for example, “if you change the textbooks and stop young people that Americans or Japanese did such and such specific thing (which is untrue and foments hatred) we will invest in that factory. Tie trade and investment to what they are teaching in schools. If you could read Chinese textbooks and what Chinese are taught about foreigners, you would be very shocked.

  3. Deonna Rayos says:

    This article affords the easy where by you can observe the truth. That is relatively wonderful one and gives in-depth tips. Thanks for that fine article

  4. Jo says:

    It is not surprising Chinese students in America get a daily dose of racism from their American, who have been brainwashed with sinophobia since the 1900′s. American viewed China as a compeititor in a zero-sum game. What good does it do to a Chinese to listen to what American have to say abou their country? The native American listened to the white man and look where that got them, nearly extinct. From this prism, I think most American like to believe that they are rigtheous, but try explaining that to the natives or black people.

    Chinese students can pick up this This deep seated racism against Chinese from a mile away. I suggest American reflect on their own crimes against humanity before preaching other about freedom and democracy, when they deny those same rights to their people.

  5. Hazza says:

    The attitude of Chinese students in Australia upsets and disappoints me. All I can say is: If you don’t like it, leave. Don’t waste your parents money.

    • Cindy says:

      Hmmm interesting observation to make, although I think you’re probably correct.
      One thing I want to point out is that most international students don’t seem to care about changing China. I know it sounds cheesy but I once asked this international student if she had been following the news on Bo Xilai, and she said she didn’t give a crap. I was definitely surprised. For these students, who have had a taste of liberal democracy, don’t they feel any desire to improve what it’s like back home??

  6. Thor May says:

    Many things are at work here. Expatriates everywhere rapidly develop their own mythologies about the local scene and pass it on to new arrivals. Many old colonial hands from the British empire remained cheerfully racist until the day they died. As an expatriate in China and South Korea I have seen prejudice amongst foreigners flourish and deepen. A similar phenomenon of course affects Asian students in the West. This is hardly new. Political figures ranging from Zhou Enlai to Deng Xiaoping to Ho Chi Minh to the demented Pol Pot all did their stint in Europe, with very mixed results. On the Islamic front, any number of Jihadists have been poor little rich boys with Western experience, and of course Ayatollah Khomeini fomented his Iranian theocratic revolution while living a protected life in France. That is not to say that every returning Chinese student will remain embittered about the American experience.

    Another factor in the Chinese student case is a problem of sheer ignorance, both of Chinese and Western histories. Combine that with a lack of life experience and you have a potent brew. The ignorance is a major problem which I’m certain of, having tried hard for years to learn from my Chinese students and colleagues only to find again and again that I had far more country-wide formal knowledge than they did (without of course the same lived-in experience of the general Chinese culture and language). Ignorance is a basic human problem, guaranteed a healthy future since so few people (Chinese or otherwise) have naturally open and curious minds. For that matter (speaking as an Australian), the stereotypical American is a stock figure of jokes in my country for his ignorance about non-American histories, cultures and especially geography.

    As some other posts have hinted, the most impervious barrier between Chinese students and their American hosts is the prism of values through which each decodes the world. Number one suspect in this invisible wall is the East Asian value of “face” (mianzi in Chinese). Face is a dominant moral force in East Asian cultures, in a way that outsiders find hard to grasp, while few of those within these cultures are able to grasp non-Asian incomprehension of something so basic. In China face controls human relationships from top to bottom (Koreans are even more extreme about this). You give others face, you withdraw their face to punish them, you trade face for advantage. Yes, this sort of stuff happens in every culture to some extent, but it is not the key marker of good and evil in most of them. Americans and Australians laugh at themselves constantly (unless they are pompous), they tease their friends, they lampoon and satirize without malice. These Western habits of human interaction hit East Asian students as a tsunami of stupidity and hostility which many of them are quite unable to decode in their bones, even if the style of it is explained intellectually (and no, a diet of American movies often seems not to have helped). The response of course is to reciprocate hostility for perceived hostility. This is a really tough issue to solve since, in the end, as minority visitors it is the foreign students who need to adapt to John Doe American. Reversing this issue, as an Australian working for twelve years in East Asia, I certainly found it hard to play the face game without sacrificing my own dearest values.

  7. [...] commentary and thoughts on Gao’s article, check out Stan Abram’s piece on China Hearsay and Ray Kwong’s piece in Offbeat [...]

  8. [...] A conversation about how an international education might change Chinese students. “’The irony is that if China was a democracy, Bo Xilai would probably be voted the President. Absolute democracy in China will look like Culture Revolution – Chinese people go to extremes very easily,’ added RoadforCN.” [Offbeat China] [...]

  9. Bill Rich says:

    most Chinese students overseas (or in China) are getting a qualification, not education. there is no desire to learn – about the host country, nor China, nor the world. the diploma is the goal, not skills to survive in the real world, because the came from a very protected life.

  10. [...] from Offbeat China discussed the impact of overseas Chinese students to China upon their return. The discussion in major [...]

  11. Yu says:

    Our younger brethren still have a lot to learn, most likely the hard way.

  12. NiubiCowboy says:

    “I believe in democracy, but I can’t stand for someone to criticize my country using biased ways. You are wearing Chinese clothes and you are using Chinese goods.”

    During my time at American and Chinese universities, I’ve heard this argument countless times for a variety of different reasons. I once watched a professor get yelled at by a Chinese student for not speaking “respectfully” about his Xia dynasty era ancestors. What I see as the problem in mutual understanding is that ANY perceived criticism of China made by a non-Chinese person is perceived as a personal attack, regardless of the truth of the claims being made. Hell, I’ve had conversations with friends about issues in China that are widely agreed upon as being tremendously screwed up, like industrial pollution or official corruption, where as soon as I voice my agreement with their opinions I’m hit with a barrage of buzz words including but not limited to “biased Western media,” “internal affairs,” “sovereignty,” capped off by the perennial favorite, “You don’t understand China.” I’ve had some of the most insightful discussions about American politics with Chinese friends and co-workers but never once have I had the urge to say, “You have no right to talk about my country’s internal affairs,” or “You don’t understand my country.”

    Being the world’s second and soon to be first largest economy in the world means that China is going to receive bad press. It’s an educating experience that its’ young people will continue to undergo as their country continues to amass power and influence. But simply putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and voicing the equivalent of “Nanny nanny boo boo, I can’t hear you because of your ‘biased ways’” won’t help. It merely shuts oneself off to a potentially enriching dialogue and stifles any reason to re-examine one’s argument and think critically about the logical foundation of one’s own position.

    • Miller says:

      I think it’s important to be VERY careful how you phrase anything in a discussion like this. I found myself in an argument with an Ecuadorian friend (attending a Chinese university) once about TW sovereignty where I ended up defending US intentions without even intending to get into a debate. Once she started telling me what the US wanted, I got defensive. It gets difficult to discuss anything when the two parties are in all likelihood applying the same name to different entities (I was discussing US citizen’s ideas at their best, she the gov’t's ideas at their most intrusive).

      When discussing China, you not only have to separate government from the nation as a whole, but recognize that you can’t separate Party from the government. As an American, I’ve often found myself agreeing with a non-American about something negative done by the Bush administration, for example, because it’s very easy to separate them not only from the people of the US, but also the government of the US.

  13. Alec says:

    I think the last paragraph really is key. I know many of the Chinese students studying here in London, but only a handful have any non-Chinese friends. Met an inordinate amount of Chinese people back in China who used to study in the West but barely speak English. Sad state of affairs. I think many Westerners who study in China are just as bad, but most Westerners are just there for a short period of time, as opposed to Chinese students who come here for a 4-year degree and still don’t have any local friends.

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