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Why the number of American students choosing to study in China remains low

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Since the pandemic eased, a lot of American students have gone abroad for study. But there is one destination to which very few Americans have returned, and it's a really important country for Americans to understand. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR: Electric vehicle manufacturers want to come to Germany...

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In a classroom tucked in a leafy corner of Peking University, a professor explains China's state-directed economy.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR: Here we go, automakers in China - 367 automakers in 29 provinces produce 29 million cars a year.

RUWITCH: There are a handful of local students in the audience and about 20 undergraduates from Stanford University. They're the first cohort here since the pandemic, and they've been in Beijing for the entire spring quarter, which ended this week.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR: The United States would have 42 carmakers.

RUWITCH: By all accounts, it's been good.

MAX SOLBERG: Just being in the environment itself is just so illuminating.

RUWITCH: Max Solberg is a 21-year-old junior studying international relations.

SOLBERG: You gain so much information about what daily life is like here. And I think that is really important, to have that understanding, especially now that there are substantial disagreements between China and the United States.

RUWITCH: Those disagreements have overshadowed everything. But when President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met last November, they agreed to encourage more student exchanges as a way to stabilize relations. So far, though, the number of Americans choosing to study in China is low. The U.S. government says about 800 American students were in the country this spring. That's up from about 200 during the depths of the pandemic, but it's a fraction of what it was just a few years ago. According to data compiled by the Institute of International Education, there were over 11,000 Americans studying in China in 2019. By comparison, there are nearly 300,000 Chinese students in the United States. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue when he met students at New York University's campus in Shanghai in April.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: I was really intent on coming here to get a chance to talk to each of you and hear from you, because I think what you're engaged in is so important to the future of both of our countries and the relationship between them.

RUWITCH: The Stanford students who NPR met at Peking University all gave the experience of being in China rave reviews, but not everyone jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. Tyler Newman is a 22-year-old design major who's been studying Chinese since the sixth grade.

TYLER NEWMAN: Growing up, I always knew that I'd come to China at some point. And when the opportunity finally arrived, I think it's funny 'cause I think, like, I kind of took a pause.

RUWITCH: She was considering another option, and she and others also had concerns about China. It's far away, it's culturally different and the intense diplomatic friction between Washington and Beijing has been unsettling.

NEWMAN: I think I definitely got a lot of worried remarks from my family members because none of them had ever gone to China. I think they just didn't kind of know, like, what I'd be going into.

RUWITCH: One issue holding some back is that the State Department has a Level 3 travel advisory on China and has since 2020. It counsels would-be travelers to reconsider, highlighting arbitrary enforcement of local laws and the risk of wrongful detentions. The University of North Carolina, for instance, told NPR that it doesn't permit study abroad programs in any country with a Level 3 travel advisory. U.S. officials say it's incumbent upon China to create the right conditions to lower the advisory. An incident this week may have made things a little more complicated, though. Four U.S. college educators were stabbed in a park in China. Beijing quickly said the attack was isolated and random.

JEAN OI: What differentiates our program, really...

RUWITCH: Back at the Stanford center, director Jean Oi and Professor Andrew Walder say they're aware of the risks but felt that relaunching the program in China was worth it. Here's Walder.

ANDREW WALDER: Well, you don't know what these kids are going to do when they grow up (laughter). I mean, I had a student in the first class I ever taught about China at Columbia University in 1982, sat in the back of the class, didn't make a big impression on me, but his name was Barack Obama.

RUWITCH: The students seem to grasp the gravity of it, and they're also just soaking up the experience. Here's Elijah Hernandez, a junior studying political science.

ELIJAH HERNANDEZ: Once you actually get beyond the headlines and you go down into, like, the actual country and you get to, like, experience how people actually live here and, like, get to meet with people in the community, I think you start to, like, break away from those headlines a lot more. And you get to really understand, like, the culture for what it is.

RUWITCH: And, he says, you see how similar we are as people.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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