Beautiful Country: Chinese Students in Pandemic America
The first thing Sisi Liang noticed about Pittsburgh, PA, was its subway.
That is, that it didn’t exist.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s second-largest city, is pretty hefty by U.S. standards. About 300,000 people live within city limits, with an additional two million in the surrounding metropolitan area. Compared to Liang’s hometown of Zhengzhou, China, Pittsburgh is a minnow.
The capital of Henan province, Zhengzhou is home to roughly ten million people, the world’s largest iPhone factory, and, of course, the extensive subway system Liang describes as characteristic of all large Chinese cities. Long underdeveloped, Zhengzhou’s rise has been powered by commercial ties with other Chinese cities as well as foreign manufacturers. Among the most important of those: a close relationship with Wuhan, the capital of neighboring Hubei province. In ordinary times, high-speed trains can cover the 333 miles between the two cities in as little as an hour and a half, 80 times a day.
These are not ordinary times.
When the SARS-CoV-2 virus burst onto the international scene early this year, Liang was initially unperturbed. She’s lived in Pittsburgh since 2017, when she began her graduate studies in foreign language education at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). She graduated last year, and has remained in the U.S. on an Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa extension.
By the time she heard the news about the outbreak in Wuhan, “the [Chinese] government had already shut down the whole city,” Liang told The Politic in an interview. Even though the Wuhan-Zhengzhou rail corridor is a crucial transportation pathway for getting just about anywhere in China, Liang says that the Henan provincial government also acted quickly to stop any movement between Hubei and Henan. Liang admits that because of this, she was never too worried for her parents and relatives, all of whom remain in China. “They follow government instructions strictly,” she said, and she felt they would be fine as long as they did as they were told.
By the beginning of March, her lack of concern seemed warranted: no one she knew was infected, and she’d heard little negative news from her parents during their frequent WeChat conversations.
Just as things were looking better in China, though, it became her family’s turn to worry about Liang. The first warnings bubbled up in early February, when Pittsburgh Chinese School, the community-run Sunday school where Liang teaches, announced a two-week break from classes and asked any families returning from China after Chinese New Year to quarantine for 14 days. Liang brushed it off as overcautiousness. Then, on Wednesday, March 11—the middle of Pitt’s spring break—it was suddenly announced that Pitt classes would be entirely online after spring break. As cases in the U.S. skyrocketed, her parents grew increasingly concerned. “Right now, my family keeps asking me if I’m okay staying in America,” she said with a hint of amusement. She says her mother even tried to convince her to come back to China (without success).
On the whole, though, Liang considers herself very lucky. She has a work-from-home job, a likely visa extension (more on that in a second), and a park near her apartment where she can exercise. She’s been spared the worst of the upheaval the pandemic has unleashed. Many of her peers haven’t been so fortunate. In many respects, the pandemic has come at the worst possible time for international students in the U.S.—especially those from China. Already isolated from home, they’re increasingly isolated here, too.
China has historically been the biggest source of international students studying in the U.S. Their tuition payments and numbers support hundreds of thousands of jobs, contribute billions to the economy, and often lead to long-term immigration that supports business creation and STEM research. Some 370,000 Chinese students were in and recently out of the higher education system in 2018-2019, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education.
That’s the largest number on record—but it’s swelled by the 70,000 Chinese nationals in OPT, which allows U.S. university graduates to continue working here for up to three years (including extensions) after they finish their education. The number of actual new foreign enrollees in the U.S. has fallen every year since President Donald Trump was elected—even as it’s ticked up in competing countries like Canada and Australia. That’s largely due to policies promulgated by the Trump administration that have made getting visas harder and increased suspicion of Chinese students and researchers. In 2018, Trump aide Stephen Miller even pushed for a ban on Chinese students studying in the U.S.
With much of the nation facing a full-blown crisis due to COVID-19 for the past two months, now might have seemed like the time to loosen the screws, recognize that 90 percent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) PhDs from China stay in the U.S. (working on efforts like vaccine research and drug development) for at least a decade, and focus on other challenges. Instead, Chinese students look set to follow journalists, Hong Kong, and the World Health Organization as the next casualties in the increasingly fraught relationship between the U.S. and China.
On Friday, May 29, Trump issued an executive proclamation which effectively bans the granting of F-1 or J-1 student visas to Chinese graduate students who have ever been affiliated with any institution that supports China’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” The decree also requires that the Secretary of State review and revoke the visa, within 60 days, of any current graduate student fitting those criteria—a measure that prevents those students from leaving the U.S. and returning, even if their visas have not expired. At only about 3,000 people, the students affected are a small subsection of the Chinese presence in U.S. universities. Frank Wu, president-designee of Queens College in New York City, NY, thinks that’s not the point.
“It starts with ‘Oh, it’s just this group,’” Wu said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “Then it becomes bigger… We’re one step away from it becoming politically acceptable again to talk about total exclusion.”
Wu may be right. Anti-immigrant politicians like Miller and Senator Tom Cotton (R-OK) seem to see the pandemic as an opportunity to realize their long-held policy goals. Next in the visa firing line: the OPT program, which Cotton recently accused of taking away jobs from American-born citizens and leaking technical knowledge to China. This is despite significant evidence that killing OPT would cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs, create sizable vacancies in the tech industry, and dull the U.S.’ competitive edge.
In Liang’s circle, visa difficulties and U.S.-China tensions, exacerbated by the pandemic, have had a significant impact. Some students she knows have been forced to relocate in the midst of the pandemic due to changes to their educational status. Two of her friends—married to American citizens—had planned to return to China in March, allow their student visas to expire, obtain spouse visas (which are seen as more secure), and come back to the U.S. Three months later, they’re still here, but in uncertain territory. Others, who were applying for H-1B work visas, had expected to be able to stay in the U.S. during the summer limbo between their student visa expirations and September news of their H-1B visa decisions. Now they’re not sure what to do.
For Liang herself, the pandemic seemed poised to complicate life in unexpected ways. This year is the last year of her current visa status, and she’s required to change to a new one before it expires—or return to China. She wasn’t selected for an H-1B work visa in her most recent application, and she would ordinarily be obliged to return home soon. That simply isn’t possible right now. Her voice losing its nonchalance for the first time in her interview, she said that everything has become harder as a result of the pandemic. In a surprisingly graceful move, the U.S. government has offered students in Liang’s situation the chance to switch to another visa status that would allow them to remain in the U.S. for a longer period—but only through what Liang considers an onerous application.
Official government actions aren’t the only forces pressuring Chinese students and immigrants in the U.S. Joyce Zhou, a junior from Guangzhou, China, who came to the U.S. for high school, compared constant talk of the “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese,” and “communism,” to being “naked outside,” in an email correspondence with The Politic. Beyond an incident where one of Liang’s friends was harassed by several African-American men shouting anti-Chinese slogans, neither Liang nor Zhou have personally experienced racism. Across the country, though, racist incidents involving Asians and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have soared. Stop AAPI Hate, a tracking group, logged over 1,700—including physical attacks—in the six weeks between Thursday, March 19, and Wednesday, May 13. Such incidents—and tacit encouragement from Trump that she sees as distracting from the problems at hand—have shocked Liang.
“I feel so disappointed that some Americans believe in him,” Liang said of Trump. “[He] could’ve done so many things… to avoid a breakout. He did nothing.”
The U.S. response to COVID-19 has cemented a long evolution in Liang’s perception of the U.S. from her childhood in Zhengzhou, when the country was synonymous with Hollywood glitz and glamour. Although Liang—who generally supports the Chinese government—does not doubt that China delayed reporting its cases, and continues to minimize the actual toll of COVID-19, U.S. actions have left both her and Zhou disillusioned. “Until people start[ed] dying,” Liang said, the U.S. was slow to act and slow to care. Liang and Zhou concur in their assessment that the U.S. is paying a price for its freedoms, and both consider the ideas of the American Dream or the U.S as “the best country in the world” to be outdated.
In spite of all that—and a strong feeling that her home is China—Liang doesn’t plan to go back. She has an American boyfriend, enjoys the less relentless pace of life, and plans on settling down as soon as she can. Living in the U.S. isn’t “awesome,” she said during our interview, but it is “great.” The biggest obstacle: her visa status. Between an assertive China, an increasingly hostile U.S., and the COVID-19 pandemic, a world where she can easily return to the U.S. if her visa expires seems an unlikely prospect.
“Once I leave,” she said, “I worry I can never come back.”