China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies and control measures in recent years have brought the number of American college students studying in China to its lowest point in more than two decades. Meanwhile, Chinese scholars continue to be the largest group of international students studying in the United States.

According to data published by The Wall Street Journal on March 19, there were only 382 American college students studying in China in the 2020-21 academic year, which is a 97 percent drop from the number two years ago and far below the peak of nearly 15,000 a decade ago.

Experts said that even after China has lifted its travel restrictions, intensified geopolitical tensions and worsening US-China relations mean that it remains unclear whether significant numbers of American students will return to study in China.

Cameron Johnson, a management professor at New York University’s Shanghai International Campus, told Voice of America that the number of American students returning to China is unlikely to improve significantly in the foreseeable future.

However, even in the face of China’s strict pandemic policies, worsening Sino-U.S. relations, and restrictions from the United States—such as on student visas for science and engineering students from Chinese universities with military backgrounds—the number of Chinese students in the United States is higher than that of any other country.

Epoch Times Photo
A young Chinese woman is pictured arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on January 11, 2023. (Lin Dan/The Epoch Times)

The data shows that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Chinese students studying in the United States had continued to grow, reaching a record high of 372,532 in 2019-2020. In the 2020-2021 academic year, there are 317,299 students, accounting for 30.6 percent of the total number of international students in the United States. The number for the 2021-2022 academic year was 290,086, which stood in sharp contrast to the number of American students in China.

China’s Soft-Power Weakness

Yang Ning, a current affairs commentator and contributor to The Epoch Times, wrote in an article on March 21 that the contrast shows China is weak in terms of its “soft power,” despite the Chinese communist regime’s bragging about its “self-confidence in system and ideology,” and how “popular” it is in the world.

“There are not many elites in many countries who are willing to send their children to China to study. Not many young people in other countries are willing to watch mainland Chinese movies and listen to Chinese music, and how many global consumers are willing to choose Chinese brands when purchasing products? Instead of improving, the CCP’s soft power is getting weaker and weaker,” Yang wrote.

According to the Agence France-Presse news agency, the relationship between Russia and China has become closer in recent years. After Moscow was widely sanctioned by Western countries for its invasion of Ukraine, its international isolation has meant that Russia has become even more dependent on its economic and trade relations with China.

Russia’s own economic and technological development is therefore increasingly reliant on China, which has sparked the enthusiasm of many Russian students for learning Chinese. Russian students’ demand for studying in Chinese universities has also grown in recent years.

Yang pointed out that in the past three to four years, the international image of communist China has been deteriorating. In June 2022, the Pew Research Center in Washington released a poll on the opinions of people in 19 developed countries toward China. The results showed that an average of 68 percent of the respondents held a negative view of China; 79 percent thought that China’s human rights policies were a serious problem; and 72 percent were worried about China’s military power.

In addition, the Chinese regime’s lack of clarity on the origins of COVID-19 remains a large part of the reason for China’s negative image. Among the respondents to the Pew Center poll, Americans, Germans, and South Koreans were the most critical of China.

Yang wrote: “This negative perception has not improved as the CCP has supported Putin and Russia. Obviously, the CCP is on the road of turning itself into a ‘public enemy of mankind.’ Is it still far away from its exit from the stage of history?”

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