Does Studying Abroad Make Chinese Students Less Patriotic?
This is the first in a series on the political attitudes of Chinese college students.
Since 2000, the number of Chinese students enrolled at foreign universities has grown rapidly. In 2016, there were 545,000 Chinese international students — the most of any nationality in the world.
As early as 1840, Chinese international students began returning home with knowledge, technology, and values that would have a significant impact on the development of Chinese society. These early generations of returnees went on to help develop the country’s first industries and were the driving force behind the revolution of 1911 that unseated the Qing Dynasty.
Many high-level members of the Communist Party, including former Premier Zhou Enlai and former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, studied abroad before returning to China. But international student numbers have really skyrocketed since the start of the reform and opening-up period in 1978, and these students have returned to join the fast-swelling ranks of the country’s academic, business, and political elites.
Alongside my colleague Feng Shizheng — a professor of sociology at the Renmin University of China — I research the opinions that Chinese international students hold toward their homeland. Do their experiences abroad “Westernize” them, or do they make them more patriotic? To date, the results have been inconclusive. A 2010 study found that Chinese international students were less patriotic than their contemporaries in China; a 2013 study came to the opposite conclusion; and a 2016 study showed that international students’ attitudes toward China don’t change as a result of their experience abroad.
Such variable findings are likely due to a shortage of scientific sampling data. Past studies have been unable to determine the differences between international students’ attitudes before and after their study abroad experience and have seldom found a suitable control group with whom to compare international students. But the Beijing College Students Panel Survey (BCSPS) changes this. It tracks the opinions of undergraduate students in Beijing over several years. Some of these students later move abroad for further study, allowing us to compare how their experiences there influence their views of China’s current development and future prospects.
Armed with the BCSPS data set, we set out to answer three questions. First, does participating in a graduate program abroad have a negative effect on how a student views China’s development and prospects? Second, do student opinions change over time? And third, can exposure to foreign media cause students to change their views?
The ways that citizens evaluate their governments are deeply affected by their country’s performance relative to that of others. When we compare societies across national lines, we must first learn about the current state of the unfamiliar new society we are living in.
At present, more than 80 percent of Chinese international students are studying in the West. Because these countries differ from China in terms of economic development, social systems, moral and ethical values, and lifestyles, it is highly likely that some Chinese students will be influenced by their interactions with locals.
We found that Chinese students who go to graduate school abroad have a noticeably more negative opinion of China’s current situation and future prospects than their domestic counterparts. When asked to assess China’s current level of development, their ratings were, on average, 2.9 percent lower than the ratings of domestic graduate students. A similar trend emerged when students were asked about their optimism toward China’s future prospects: The responses of international students were 1.7 percent lower than those of students enrolled at domestic universities.
From this data, we concluded that studying abroad is likely to make Chinese graduate students think less of their own country. However, their dimmer views of China are likely to take the form of dissatisfaction with the current state of the country. International students are generally optimistic about China’s future — just slightly less optimistic than students at home.
Chinese international students’ opinions of Western countries are also closely linked to how long they spend abroad. We found that among long-term international students, views of China follow a U-shaped curve: At first, they tend to look down on China’s development and future prospects, but if they spend longer than a year and a half in their host country, their views gradually grow more positive again.
These findings suggest that students with more superficial understandings of their host countries are more likely to idealize the West and shun China. But as time goes on, however, these students gain a more nuanced understanding of their host countries and generally begin to feel more positive and optimistic about China’s own situation.
It’s known that the news media shapes public attitudes toward international affairs. In addition, Chinese and Western media outlets report the news in different ways. For better or worse, Western outlets tend to publish larger quantities of critical reporting, while Chinese outlets are less likely to place conflict at the heart of what they publish — especially since the Chinese media industry has been encouraged to run so-called positive energy stories. So does exposure to foreign media negatively impact university student attitudes toward China and its future?
Our research showed that Chinese students consuming foreign media reports — whether they access them in China or abroad — feel less satisfied with China’s current situation than their peers. This dissatisfaction increases if the student reads large quantities of foreign news reports. To a certain degree, the more negative appraisals of China held by international students are fueled by their greater exposure to foreign media. However, as the BCSPS only includes data on media consumption since 2012, we cannot yet exclude the possibility that the groups who are most dissatisfied with China’s current state and future prospects are also the ones most likely to consume foreign media in the first place.
Due to a lack of tracking data, we cannot determine whether international students will experience a rise in satisfaction with their homeland as they spend more time consuming foreign media reports. But we can still infer that international students may grow more satisfied with China as they come to a fuller understanding of the West. Research suggests that the Chinese public holds the development levels found in Western countries in quite high esteem, but if you control for this factor, their satisfaction levels regarding China’s own development notably improve.
Therefore, we should encourage Chinese citizens to gain more exposure to foreign societies and to learn more about them by both spending time abroad and consuming foreign media. At first, they may seem dissatisfied with China’s current level of development. But in the long term, they will be more likely to draw objective comparisons and become more satisfied with the development of their homeland.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A Chinese student poses for a photo next to a Chinese flag that stands among American flags honoring victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Malibu, California, US, Sept. 9, 2014. Mark Ralston/VCG)