Chinese Students in the U.S.: A Clash of Civilizations?

An article in the New York Times looks at the increasing numbers of Chinese students attending U.S. universities, which have actively recruited them, and the challenges both the students and the universities face once they are enrolled:

Colleges, eager to bolster their diversity and expand their international appeal, have rushed to recruit in China, where fierce competition for seats at Chinese universities and an aggressive admissions-agent industry feed a frenzy to land spots on American campuses. College officials and consultants say they are seeing widespread fabrication on applications, whether that means a personal essay written by an agent or an English proficiency score that doesn’t jibe with a student’s speaking ability. American colleges, new to the Chinese market, struggle to distinguish between good applicants and those who are too good to be true.

Once in the classroom, students with limited English labor to keep up with discussions. And though they’re excelling, struggling and failing at the same rate as their American counterparts, some professors say they have had to alter how they teach.

Colleges have been slow to adjust to the challenges they’ve encountered, but are beginning to try new strategies, both to better acclimate students and to deal with the application problems. The onus is on them, says Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Peking University High School, one of Beijing’s top schools, and director of its international division. “Are American universities unhappy? Because Chinese students and parents aren’t.”

“Nothing will change,” Mr. Jiang says, “unless American colleges make it clear to students and parents that it has to.”


Jiang Xueqin wrote a post in the Diplomat in response to the New York Times article
, in which he argues that the problems U.S. universities have integrating the Chinese students are due to a clash of civilizations. He calls the rising numbers of Chinese students in the U.S, “a ticking time bomb that will create an international crisis when it goes off”:

Ever since 2004, when the U.S. government relaxed visa requirements for Chinese students and American universities began recruiting Chinese undergraduates, Chinese not adapting well to American academic life has been a growing problem. And now, because the New York Times has pronounced it so, it’s officially a problem.

But what exactly is the problem?

The obvious answer is the language barrier, which results in Chinese students keeping silent in the classroom, and ostracizing themselves from campus life. Then, of course, there’s the cheating and plagiarizing, as well as the psychological and behavioral issues that arise from the culture shock.

The good news is that Chinese parents are themselves concerned, and Chinese students who are planning to study abroad are, as early as elementary school, taking weekend English classes, watching “Gossip Girl,” and attending summer camps in the United States. Chinese applicants to U.S. colleges and universities are increasing in terms of both quantity and quality.

But here’s the bad news: Cross-cultural tensions on the American campus may still increase because the problem isn’t Chinese students who can’t speak English – it’s fundamentally a clash of civilizations. Chinese and Americans have fundamentally different values, norms, and worldviews, and Chinese students on U.S. campuses is merely the first front of the inevitable struggle between the hegemon and its challenger.

See also this previous CDT post on the process by which Chinese students apply and are accepted to U.S. universities.