The bitter fruit of Trump’s China-bashing

February 24, 2019

Ashley Smith looks at the implications of a transformation in U.S. higher education — and how Trump’s nationalism is jeopardizing the rights and safety of Chinese students.

DONALD TRUMP’S new cold war with China has caught Chinese foreign students at U.S. universities in the crosshairs.

The Trump administration has tightened restrictions on their visas, accused them of spying for the Chinese state and its high-tech giants, and, in the process, whipped up a climate of anti-Asian racism.

Trump’s policies yielded bitter fruit most recently at Duke University. The chair of the graduate program in biostatics, Megan Neely, wrote an e-mail following from several faculty members about Chinese graduate students “speaking Chinese (in their words VERY LOUDLY)” in the student lounge and study areas.

Neely’s e-mail scolded the students for speaking their native language. She told them to “commit to using English 100 percent of the time” while in department buildings or “any other professional setting.”

On campus at Duke University
On campus at Duke University

Even worse, Neely warned the students that if they didn’t, it might impact their ability to get internships and jobs. She told them: “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese.”


THIS WASN’T the first time that Neely had criticized students for speaking a language besides English in their private time. Last year, she sent a message to all biostatistics students saying: “I don’t like being the language police [but]...speaking in your native language in the department may give faculty the impression that you are not trying to improve your English skills and that you are not taking this opportunity seriously.”

She also warned of “potential downstream effects” that might compromise their professional advancement in the biostatics program and their employability.

These were no idle threats. The two professors whose complaints prompted Neely’s recent e-mail asked for and received photographs of the Chinese students from Neely with the expressed intent of discriminating against them.

Chinese students were shocked by this blatant racism. One PhD student in Chemistry, Chi Liu, said: “All of us are angry. We feel offended. You have this e-mail to the Chinese students saying...if you speak Chinese you will be remembered and identified, and that will affect your performance. That is very serious.”

Duke’s Asian American Student Organization and International Association issued a joint statement that pointed out:

For international students, speaking in their mother tongue is a means of comfort and familiarity with a home and culture that is oftentimes suppressed within the United States...Within the bounds of one’s personal conversations, people should wholeheartedly be able to speak any language they wish — to strip away this agency is demeaning, disrespectful, and wholly discriminatory.

Neely’s shocking e-mail provoked a wave of criticism at the university. A group of “concerned students” created a petition, which demanded that the school investigate Neely and the two professors. It collected over 2,000 signatures from the campus community.

The uproar even spread to China. On the country’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, the hashtag “Duke University Bans Speaking Chinese” was viewed over 6.7 million times.

Caught in a spiraling scandal, Duke demoted Neely from her chair position and issued an apology. The dean of the medical school, Dr. Mary Klotman, wrote: “To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom. And your privacy will always be protected.”


DUKE MAY have resolved this crisis for now, but Trump’s new cold war will only provoke more attacks on Chinese students. He has raised tariffs on China’s exports to the U.S., targeted Chinese companies with sanctions and begun a military buildup to confront this emerging rival.

Trump is also extending his economic nationalist program against China into the higher education system. Universities and colleges are directly integrated into the American state through funding as well ties to the military-industrial complex. As a result, the higher education system is tied to the interests of the U.S. capitalist class and its imperial domination of the world.

During the period of neoliberal globalization, however, U.S. higher education has undergone a transformation in both function and student composition.

First, it became increasingly internationalized, creating connections with higher education systems of other countries.

Second, the increasing privatization of public universities has opened them to a growing number of foreign students, especially ones from China. States across the country have cut funding, universities have dramatically raised tuition, and students have gone into massive debt — now over $1.3 trillion — to afford a degree.

In the wake of the Great Recession, both public and private universities have suffered declining enrollment as U.S. students balk at the enormous debt entailed in getting a degree. Higher education bosses have made up for that drop by luring foreign students who pay full tuition, room and board to attend undergraduate and graduate programs.

This isn’t simply lucrative for some universities. It’s essential at a time when many, including prestigious institutions like Hampshire College, are struggling to keep their doors open.

As a result, the total number of foreign students in U.S. universities has doubled in the last two decades to over 1 million today. Chinese students have grown the fastest, increasing fivefold since 2000 to over 360,000, or about 35 percent of the total.

The overall value for the U.S. economy of this trade in students is an estimated $42.4 billion, a sum greater than the $21.6 billion exports in soybeans and rivaling exports of $51 billion in pharmaceuticals and $53 billion in automobiles.


DUKE IS an example of the overall pattern. In its master’s program in biostatics heretofore overseen by Neely, Chinese students account for 36 out of a total of 55 students. In the whole graduate program, their numbers are 1,300 out of 8,500.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese ruling class and state have used this opening to advance their interests. The Chinese elite is sending students to U.S. undergraduate and graduate programs in sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called STEM disciplines), as well business administration.

After graduation, some stay and staff key sectors of American big business, particularly in high tech, while others return to China to bolster the competitiveness of the country’s corporations.

The Chinese state has encouraged its high-tech national champions like telecom giant Huawei to establish contracts with U.S. research institutions to bolster their standing as world leaders in research and development.

At the same time, the state is worried that their students might be influenced by liberal and radical ideas that might encourage them to challenge the Communist Party’s autocratic rule back home.

Therefore, Beijing has established about 150 chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholar Associations on campuses throughout the U.S. These both organize social activities for students as well as keep tabs on them.

China has established Confucian Institutes on over 100 campuses to promote Chinese language and culture, provide services for Chinese nationals teaching in the U.S. and facilitate cultural exchanges. They also use the institutes to influence U.S. universities, registering protest against speakers the state considers anti-Chinese, like the exiled religious leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama.

The Communist Party also attempts to influence U.S. academics’ portrayals of China by threatening to deny them visas to visit and conduct research in the country. For example, Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, editors of The Tiananmen Papers about the Communist Party’s massacre student and workers to quell the uprising in 1989, have been denied visas ever since the publication of their book.


MEANWHILE, TRUMP has initiated a campaign against the Chinese state and its corporations, and part of this battle is curbing their influence over universities and Chinese foreign students.

Trump’s lapdog Mike Pence’s announced this offensive against “enemy within” universities in his speech at the Hudson Institute last October. He warned: “The Chinese Communist Party is rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state and federal officials.”

He charged China with creating a “culture of censorship” in universities and complained that “Beijing provides generous funding to universities, think tanks, and scholars, with the understanding that they will avoid ideas that the Communist Party finds dangerous or offensive.”

Then — in formulations worthy of the 1950s poster “Is your washroom breeding Bolsheviks?” — he denounced “the Chinese Students and Scholars Association” for alerting “Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line.”

All of this reeks of hypocrisy, of course. Trump and the right are enemies of academic freedom and scientific thought.

They are conducting McCarthyite attacks against progressive academics as advocates of “cultural Marxism,” policing students and academics who are advocates of Palestinian liberation, waging war on the humanities, and aiming to reduce the function of every level of education to the narrow interests of the American state and corporations in dominating the world system.

Double talk aside, Trump has already begun implementing his plan. He has issued an order instructing public universities to terminate all contracts with Huawei, or federal funding would be cut.

And the schools have all obeyed. The University of California Berkeley banned any further research projects with Huawei, which has donated $7.8 million to the school over the last two years.

Trump has extended the attack on corporations to Chinese students. U.S. intelligence agencies are warning universities that students are spying for China and stealing intellectual property.

To put a stop to this supposed threat, the administration has denied and delayed visas to Chinese students studying robotics, aviation and high tech. Trump’s racist adviser Stephen Miller almost convinced the administration to impose a total ban on Chinese nationals studying in the U.S.


FAR FROM standing up against Trump’s China-bashing and protectionism, the Democratic Party including its progressive and even socialist wing, has joined the chorus.

Elizabeth Warren, for example, has denounced against the neoliberal establishment for promising that open markets would bring about democracy in China.

In a Foreign Policy article, she wrote: “Policymakers promised that open markets would lead to open societies. Instead, efforts to bring capitalism to the global stage unwittingly helped create the conditions for competitors to rise up and lash out. Russia became belligerent and resurgent. China weaponized its economy without ever loosening its domestic political constraints.”

Similarly, Bernie Sanders, who is known as a spokesperson for progressive internationalism, has long advocated an economic nationalist program against China.

In 2011, for example, he denounced the Smithsonian Museum for selling busts of U.S. presidents made in China. More recently, he supported a tariff war with China, writing: “I strongly support imposing stiff penalties on countries like China, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam to prevent them from illegally dumping steel and aluminum into the U.S. and throughout the world.”

Such nationalism contributes to anti-Chinese racism and anti-Asian racism more generally. Left-wing author Barbara Ehrenreich plumbed the depths of such bigotry recently when she tweeted: “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering Marie Kondo learns to speak English.”


THIS XENOPHOBIA is only the latest expression of the toxic history of anti-Asian prejudices and laws that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act and continued through the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, the racist demonization of the Vietnamese during the U.S. war on their country, and the recent bigoted caricatures of Koreans during Trump’s stand-off with Kim Jung-un.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. political class’s China-bashing has triggered a sharp increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination. National Public Radio reports that “hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are rising exponentially. A report from the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations found that crimes targeting Asian-Americans tripled in that county between 2014 and 2015.”

And since the Trump administration’s rise to power, they have increased even more. There was a 20 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian-Pacific Americans in 2017.

The trends of Islamophobia, immigrant-bashing and hostility to foreign students that Trump accelerated have driven down international enrollment by 3.3 percent in 2016 and by 6.6 percent in 2017.

Indian graduate school applications dropped by 12 percent in 2017. While Chinese student enrollment is still increasing, it has begun to slow from an increase of 8.1 percent in 2014-15 to 6.8 percent in 2015-16 and 3.1 percent in 2017-18.

Those that remain have soured on the U.S. One study by Purdue University found that the percentage of foreign students holding negative views of the U.S. jumped from 29 percent in 2016 to 42 percent in 2018.

One anonymous student told the South China Post, “More students, including myself, have even considered returning to China as a Plan B if we can’t find a job in the U.S., and some of them are searching for jobs in China simultaneously.”

But as the Post noted, “[T]he job market for new graduates on the other side of the globe is not much better, as Trump’s trade war begins to cause sweeping layoffs and hiring freezes in China’s tech industry.”

These students are thus caught between two powers struggling for dominance in a crisis ridden system.


WITH TRUMP tearing at the internationalized structure of U.S. higher education and trying to push out Chinese students, some universities and high-tech businesses have begun to worry about a possible drop in the pool of Chinese students they can recruit from. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign went so far as to take out a $60 million insurance policy to protect against any sudden drop in Chinese enrollment.

The conflict between the U.S. and China is also spilling into other countries with educational systems with large Chinese student populations.

For example, when Trump forced Canada to detain Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Whanzhou on charges that the company violated sanctions on Iran, China responded by threatening to withdraw all of its 77,000 students if Ottawa sent Meng to the U.S. to stand trial.

In Canada, Chinese students account for a large share of the 40 percent increase in foreign students since 2013. These pay an average of $27,159 a year in tuition — four times what Canadian residents pay — and they spend over $15 billion a year in Canada.

Thus, they are an important part not just of the country’s big business in higher education, but also the broader economy.

Moody’s Investors Services went so far as to warn “that the intensification of political tensions between the government of Canada and the government of China poses credit risks for Canadian universities.”

Back in the U.S., university presidents became so concerned that 65 of them penned a letter supporting a legal challenge to Trump’s threat to ban international students for overstaying their visas.

Some high-tech bosses have similarly protested about the loss of access to foreign students in U.S. universities. They point to the fact that about a quarter of new companies worth a billion dollars were started by moguls who first came to the U.S. as students.

Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities underlined the point to the financial information company Marketwatch: “International graduate students are pivotal to our economic system. These students go on, many of them earn master’s degrees and PhDs in many highly needed fields. They’re incredibly important not only to our universities, but our economy as well.”


BUT THE logic of the spiraling interimperial rivalry between the U.S. and China will likely continue to pry apart the interpenetration of their educational systems.

The U.S. is already trying to retool its own education system to yield more American talent in the STEM fields, and China may redirect its students to its own rapidly improving higher education institutions and those of countries less hostile to it.

Amid this intensifying conflict, socialists must take a clear stand against the political class’s China-bashing, whether it comes from right-wing Republicans like Trump or progressives like Warren and Sanders. Whatever its source, it is American nationalism that binds workers to their exploiters against their fellow workers in China.

Instead, we must unite — just like the Duke students did — against the racist attacks on Chinese students, defend their right to speak their language of choice, agitate against any restrictions on their visas and build a movement among both native and foreign students and workers for our common interests.

Such organizing will also open up opportunities to build the international workers’ movement. Some of these students are part of the developing new left on university campuses in China that has suffered government repression for organizing solidarity with workers on strike. They should be considered part of our emerging new socialist movement.

We should build this common struggle without in any way supporting the Chinese state. It is a rising imperialist power in the world system that oversees the exploitation of its own population, the oppression of subject nations like Tibet and national minorities like the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, and increasingly exploits Third World countries in pursuit of raw materials and outlets for its exports.

The slogan for our solidarity movement must therefore be: “Neither Washington nor Beijing but International Socialism.”

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