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Chinese students say US visa restrictions won't affect their plans

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 30/5/2018 Sarah Zheng and Zhang Pinghui
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Chinese students have been caught in the cross hairs of the brewing trade war between Beijing and Washington, but see little impact – at least for the moment – from the United States’ latest policy change to shorten the validity of visas to some Chinese citizens.

While Chinese international students preparing to go to the US to study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields said the changes would not affect their plans, education consultants believe the visa changes may prompt some of them to study elsewhere.

A US official told Associated Press that US embassies and consulates had received instructions to limit Chinese postgraduate students to one-year visas if they were studying in fields prioritised in Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” innovation strategy – such as robotics, aviation and hi-tech manufacturing.

The move comes after US president Donald Trump announced US$50 billion in punitive tariffs on Chinese imports and investment restrictions in the US hi-tech industry.

A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Beijing said the maximum validity for a US student visa for Chinese nationals was five years, and the visa application process was unchanged. But she added that consular officers could limit visas on a case-by-case basis.

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China is the world’s largest source of international students, with more than 600,000 leaving the mainland to pursue higher education overseas last year, official data shows. Most head to the US for their studies, but increasingly many enrol in places like the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Under Trump, the attitude of Chinese international students has shifted over uncertainties about obtaining work visas and an anti-immigration political climate.

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For Chinese student Hanna Liu, who will leave Beijing for the US in autumn next year to study chemical engineering, the policy will not affect her plan for now.

“I think there is no choice but to accept it. This will not affect my decision to study in the US as long as universities still admit international students,” the 17-year-old said. “I am not interested in living in the US for a long time, but I do want to get a doctorate in the US before returning to China.”

Tianjin native David Sun, 24, said students with majors such as his in computer science had long faced greater scrutiny in visa checks, and it took longer to issue the visas.

“The change is like increasing the odds of having your visa checked from 70 per cent to 100 per cent,” he said, referring to the mandatory student visa for international students. “The policy will be inconvenient, but not inconvenient enough for students to drop the idea of going to the US altogether.”

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Analysts say the policy may do little to counter China’s alleged intellectual property theft and espionage in the US, while prompting Chinese students currently in America to leave instead of contributing their skills to the US.

“What it will do is create more paperwork, costs and uncertainty for the affected Chinese students,” said Eric Fish, author of China’s Millennials: The Want Generation, who is writing another book about Chinese students in the US. “It will give sought-after Chinese students one more in a growing list of incentives to pursue their studies in countries other than the United States.

“In the international competition for talent in these crucial industries, the administration has just handed an advantage to competitors.”

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The visa restrictions could push Chinese international students to other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany or the Netherlands, or they may pursue their studies at home, education consultants said.

Domenica di Lieto, chief executive of Emerging Communications, a UK-based Chinese marketing agency, said the visa restriction move would “scare Chinese students” and add to the already growing numbers heading to the UK for higher education.

“When a student starts their journey, they’re asking, ‘What country do I want to go to and why?’,” she said. “One of the big draws is, how long can I stay after I’ve studied here to get work experience abroad, and will that help me get a better job back in China.”

This Chinese graduate built Yamibuy into a US$100 million business selling Asian snacks, instant noodles in America

While many Chinese students remain abroad after graduating, the number choosing to return home after their studies grew by more than 11 per cent last year to 480,000, according to the Ministry of Education.

Edward Tse, founder and chief executive of Gao Feng Advisory Company, said the latest measures from Washington were a reflection of the US seeing China as a strategic competitor.

“In a way, this sort of limitation or restriction from the US is going to create a silver lining for the Chinese because it’s going to force the Chinese to accelerate its own research and development,” he said. “In particular, Made in China 2025 is a national imperative.”

Recent changes have also made this clear for Yudi, a Chinese engineer who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering, but now works at Hunan-based Farsoon Technologies, which built China’s first national 3D printing lab.

“I think many more students would come back, apply what they learned abroad, and contribute to the 2025 plan,” he said. “It is definitely a positive thing for the 2025 plan.”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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