The international student's guide to the US-China trade war and how it impacts them
Cartoon images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump on a street in Hong Kong on February 17, 2019. Source: AFP/Dale De La Rey

It seems like everywhere you go today, you can’t escape from hearing about the US-China trade war. It’s in the news, it’s what your relatives are talking about, and the Chinese Ministry of Education has implied possible repercussions on students at US colleges and universities.

The Ministry has a point. Campus grounds may seem detached from international politics but its effects should never be underestimated. Remember how Saudi Arabia withdrew all its government-sponsored students from Canadian universities over the Trudeau government’s criticism of Saudi’s arrests of human rights activists? Well, it resulted in the transfer of thousands of students to universities in other countries.

Things here could turn just as messy. In preparation for this, here’s a guide of must-know information for Chinese students at US colleges and universities:

What’s the trade war all about?

What started with a US investigation into Chinese trade policies in 2017 dragged into both countries imposing tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese and American products until December last year. A truce was agreed in December, supporting hopes for a deal, but things took a turn for the worse May this year. The US has since raised tariffs from 10 to 25 percent on US$200 billion of Chinese products and is in the process of imposing more. China has retaliated by increasing the tariff rate covering some of the US$60 billion of US exports it had already hit in September.

Why are university students caught in the crossfire?

According to Foreign Policy, higher education is “more exposed than any other—and far less likely to receive compensation from the White House”. It could be the next target by Beijing and Washington as they seek leverage on each other. After all, more than 363,000 students from China studied at American colleges and universities in 2017-18 (the largest single group of students by country of origin and mostly full fee-paying) – and any slight change in policy has the potential to hurt both sides.

One way this could pan out is by China preventing or discouraging citizens from choosing the US, or as in the case of the Saudi Arabia-Canada tiff, a withdrawal. Instead, they could promote other study abroad destinations like Australia, Canada, Ireland or the United Kingdom.

The US could also further restrict Chinese students from entering the US. Last month, US lawmakers have already introduced legislation intended to prohibit anyone employed or sponsored by the Chinese military from receiving student or research visas to the United States.

Will it affect my visa?

Since last June, the US government has introduced a new policy to shorten the length of validity for some visas issued to Chinese citizens. It’s a departure from the previous practice of issuing these visas for the maximum possible length.

Chinese graduate students would be limited to one-year visas – it used to be issued for five years – if they are studying fields like robotics, aviation and hi-tech manufacturing, according to instructions sent to US embassies and consulates. Those working as researchers or managers for companies on a US Commerce Department list of entities requiring higher scrutiny would also be required to go through special clearance – which could take months – from multiple US agencies.

In early June, China’s Ministry of Education issued the following warning to applicants to US colleges and universities: “For some time, some of the visas for Chinese students studying in the United States have been restricted …The visa review period has been extended, the validity period has been shortened and the refusal rate has increased. This has affected the Chinese students studying in the United States normally or successfully completing their studies in the United States. The Ministry of Education reminds students and scholars to strengthen risk assessment before going abroad to study, enhance awareness of prevention and make appropriate preparations.”

What are the other ways it could affect me?

FBI Director Christopher Wray has commented before Congress that Chinese students could be a national security risk. The US President has reportedly called “almost every student” from China a spy. If this rhetoric continues, it could shape public opinion to really believe what’s being said despite the lack of evidence to support it. A minority believing these allegations could result in, at best, unfriendly and at worst, hostile treatment towards Chinese students.

Bloomberg report last week revealed that several Chinese graduate students and academics deem the US academic and job environment to be increasingly unfriendly, too. Researchers at Emory University and University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center have been fired due to their alleged ties to China.

What’s the long-term impact?

Unfriendly immigration policies usually have a negative impact on a country’s higher education sector enrollment figures. In many US colleges and universities, this will indirectly lead to a substantial drop in the cost for tuition they collect from Chinese students, who pay much higher fees. For example, it’s estimated that the University of South Florida in Tampa will lose up to US$10 million a year if they replace the one thousand Chinese students paying out-of-state tuition of US$17,134 with students paying in-state tuition of US$6,410

Chinese students in similar universities may feel the pinch later through potential cuts in services and resources their university may no longer be able to afford. Some schools may have to close – only time will tell.

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