After Abduction, Chinese Students Abroad Weigh Safety of US
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2017-07-05 13:40:28

The recent disappearance of a Chinese researcher has some asking whether the United States is a safe study destination, and whether Chinese students are sufficiently prepared for its potential pitfalls.

Zhang Yingying, who moved to the U.S. in April to spend a year as a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois, has been missing since June 9. Originally from eastern China’s Fujian province, Zhang, 26, graduated last year from the prestigious Peking University with a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Her alleged abductor, Brendt Christensen, 28, was arrested last week by the FBI. He first appeared in court on July 3.

A junior student surnamed Ming, who maintains the “Find Yingying” Facebook page and came to the University of Illinois from China in 2014, told Sixth Tone that Zhang’s disappearance has not made her feel any more concerned for her own safety. “There’s danger everywhere — it’s all about probability,” she said. “Regardless of where you go, these things happen.”

According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Education, around 540,000 young people left the country in 2016 to pursue educational opportunities elsewhere. The same year, 31 Chinese students were reportedly killed while abroad — or 5.7 out of every 100,000. For American students studying abroad, the mortality rate is higher, at 13.5 out of 100,000.

On China’s popular Q&A website, Zhihu, a question trending over the past two weeks asks older Chinese students what their younger peers can do to ensure their personal safety during their stateside studies. Among the most popular answers: buy a car, and always research how safe the neighborhood is before renting a house or apartment.

Some Chinese studying abroad, like Liang Xiaohua, who graduated from Princeton University this year, argued that urban areas anywhere present certain inherent risks. “I’ve never had any illusions about the safety of U.S. cities,” he said.

And Rory Grimes, director of student admissions at EBF International, an education consulting company in Shanghai, said that from his experience, a chief concern among Chinese people is the view that guns make the U.S. less safe, though he attributes this to a lack of understanding. Whenever the subject is broached, he likes to remind his clients that they’re moving to America, not Mogadishu.

“A lot of it comes from the America they see on TV shows,” Grimes said. “But this is not a mirror of society. Their lives will be more ‘Big Bang Theory’ than ‘The Wire.’”

Over the last decade, China’s education ministry has expanded its nationwide “safe study abroad” pre-departure training program. In 2016, more than 38,000 “state-sponsored scholars” attended orientation programs held in 34 Chinese cities.

This year’s program is centered around four themes: “thoughts and values,” such as patriotic education, Chinese cultural mores, and revolutionary tradition; “policies,” such as how to get a foreign diploma recognized in China and how to start a business upon returning home; “skills and knowledge,” such as overseas customs and safety precautions; and “country-specific,” dealing with how to adapt in different study abroad destinations.

Host institutions and their international student groups often provide their own orientation sessions for incoming international students — sometimes even on Chinese soil — and generally tend to have more resources at their disposal when it comes to protecting students.

As a public university with a student population of nearly 45,000, the University of Illinois has round-the-clock university police, trained student patrol officers who carry police radios and provide walking escorts upon request, and over a thousand on-campus security cameras.

However, smaller universities sometimes take a different tack when it comes to safety.

“We watched some skits warning us about unprotected sex and doping at parties,” Li Shiyue, a recent graduate of Harvey Mudd College in California, told Sixth Tone. “We also had to pass online quizzes on the illegal use of guns and drugs.”

Bai Yunpeng, a junior at Carleton College in Minnesota, reported an even more bare-bones approach: “We were given a whistle and two condoms,” he said.

Editors: David Paulk and Colum Murphy.

(Header image: Supporters gather with signs calling for justice for Zhang Yingying, missing since June 9, before the bond hearing for alleged kidnapper Brendt Christensen at a courthouse in Urbana, Illinois, U.S., July 3, 2017. Alexandra Wimley/Chicago Tribune/VCG)