Are Chinese students a threat to US security?

By Published October 9, 2020

Chinese account for a third of the overseas students in the United States and last year contributed US$14.9 billion to the US economy. Despite this, in 2020 Washington revoked more than 1,000 visas between May and September in another blow to US-China relations

China is the biggest source of overseas students and while many of these students returned home because of the pandemic, 1.42 million were still enrolled abroad as of March, 2020.

As the following timeline shows, the administration of US President Donald Trump began signalling student visas were at risk as early as May, 2020.

Seven Sons of National Defence

1Point3Acres is a Chinese online community for students to share their experiences on schools, visas and job applications. Students who graduated from the “Seven Sons of National Defence” have been discussing how their visas were cancelled this year. The “Seven Sons” are a group of universities overseen by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and associated with the military and military-related industries.

These are the seven universities.

* Data only includes undergraduate students. Data for other universities consists of undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate students.

Major fields of study, 2018-19

More than 171,000 Chinese nationals were enrolled in science and engineering programmes at US institutions for the 2018-19 academic year. Since 2018, those studying robotics, aviation, engineering and hi-tech manufacturing have faced tighter US visa controls.

Left: The Chinese consulate in Houston was accused of stealing American and European intellectual property and given 72 hours notice to close. Photo: AP Right: The US consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu was ordered shut in retaliation. Photo: EPA-EFE

Top: The Chinese consulate in Houston was accused of stealing American and European intellectual property and given 72 hours notice to close. Photo: AP Bottom: The US consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu was ordered shut in retaliation. Photo: EPA-EFE

From January to July 2019, a third of all F1 visas, the most common type of visa issued to overseas students, were to people from China. Only 9 per cent of F1 visas were granted to Chinese students in the same period this year.

May, June and July are the peak months for student visa applications, with most schools starting enrollment in August. Scroll through each month to see the visa issuance for Chinese students between 2019 and 2020.

In May 2019 , the US issued an average of 673 F1 visas per day to Chinese students

But in May 2020, the US only issued a total of seven F1 visas to mainland Chinese students.

In June, the busiest month for student visa applications, the US embassy issued an average of 1,133 visas to Chinese students per day in 2019.

A year later, only eight mainlanders were granted visas in June

703 mainland Chinese students were granted F1 visas each day in July 2019, one month ahead of the autumn semester

In July 2020, an average of 4.7 visas per day were issued to mainland students

Student visas during the coronavirus

July 2018 - June 2019 compared to July 2019 - June 2020

Britain and Australia have also been popular destinations for Chinese students wanting to study abroad. Here we compare the number of visas granted by the US to overseas students with those granted by Britain and Australia.

According to Xinhua News Agency, some British universities will work with China’s Hainan Airlines to return 20,000 Chinese students to British campuses by chartered flights over the next two months.

International students’ contributions to US economy

US colleges and universities have long relied on international fees, with nearly a third of all tuition payments to US public universities coming from international students. In the academic year of 2018-19, China alone contributed US$14.9 billion, or about one-third of US institutions’ income. The Covid-19 pandemic and worsening US-China relations not only derailed students’ plans to study in the US, but also added to the financial burden on American schools.

Total income from international students to US economy

China’s job market

The pandemic and tougher immigration and job rules have forced about 65 per cent of the Chinese students studying in the US, Britain and Australia to return to China, adding to an already crowded labour market. About 60 per cent of those returning have at least a master’s degree and will compete within a pool of 8.74 million graduates looking for work, the highest number ever.

According to a survey released last month by online career development platform UniCareer, around 40 per cent of returning graduates were offered annual salaries of less than 100,000 yuan (US$14,725). Around 5 per cent have been offered jobs paying around 300,000 yuan (US$44,000) or more a year.

Creative Director Darren Long
Cover by Adolfo Arranz
Photos: AP Ng Han Guan; AFP Mandel Ngan; Reuters Carlos Garcia Rawlinsl; Reuters Anushree Fadnavis; Spotify Michael Loccisano; San Diego Union-Tribune John Gibbins; Reuters Tingshu Wang

Sources: US Bureau of Consular Affairs; Australian Department of Home Affairs; The Home Office; Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China National Association for Foreign Student Affair(NAFSA); Open Doors; Official websites of Beihang University, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Beijing Institute of Technology, Harbin Engineering University, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics; The Official Website of the City of New York; UniCareer; SCMP research

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