One of his concerns, Gow told me, is that these sort of sweeping assertions can harden views on campus toward Chinese students: They’re wealthy. They’re nationalistic. They’re all spies.
“The narrative transforms attitudes towards Chinese students within higher education,” Gow said.
I think Gow’s point is valid. It’s something I struggle with. On one hand, for China’s government, higher education is a sphere over which it seeks to exert influence. And yes, there have been incidents of Chinese students seeking to assert nationalistic perspectives or shout down speakers who challenge their worldview. In a high-profile case earlier this year, students at McMaster University, in Canada, coordinated
with the Chinese embassy to protest a Uighur speaker.
But the students at McMaster were punished. The Chinese student association was stripped of its official status by the student government and just lost an appeal
to be reinstated. Colleges do have mechanisms to act when Chinese students seek to suppress speech.
I worry that too often there’s not enough nuance in discussions about Chinese students and a tendency to see them as a monolith.
The students themselves understand and absorb these attitudes. Just the other day, I was talking with a student from Guangzhou who told me of a discussion in a comparative politics class about the NBA’s controversy in China
. Before she had a chance to speak up, she said, some of her classmates turned to her to give the “China perspective” – to argue in favor of punishing the NBA for an executive’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters.
“Don’t Americans understand,” she said, “that I chose to study outside because I want to learn more? I want to learn what I did not learn in China.”
What was she learning, I asked. “That things are not always as good in America as I thought,” she said.
When studies show Chinese students’ perception of the U.S. is souring, it’s easy to blame a nationalistic social media diet
and influence from home. But perhaps some of the responsibilty lies here.
It’s long been an article of faith within higher education that sending students around the world builds bridges. If western countries cannot find a way to raise concerns without demonizing an entire student population, we risk erecting walls.
Yes, Gow told me, some of his Chinese students do have nationalistic attitudes.
“Does that mean we shouldn’t teach them? That’s why they’re in university.”
For more perspectives on Chinese students studying overseas, check out this ChinaFile conversation. Add your voice – send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.