With over a quarter-million Chinese nationals heading overseas to study at American universities, they make up the largest contingent among foreign students in the States in terms of country of origin. In his recent study “Patriotism Abroad: Overseas Chinese Students’ Encounters with Criticisms of China,” Henry Ciu Hail, a PhD student in sociology at the University of California at Irvine, assesses interactions between these students and their American counterparts.
Hail points to anecdotal cases wherein host students' inquiries about political and social issues in China led to tense or negative interactions between American and Chinese students.
“Some Chinese students complain that host country students want to talk with them about China but exhibit misinformed, prejudiced and offensive views of Chinese current events. Conflicting views of China’s political and social situation can sometimes lead to intense hostility between Chinese and host country students," Hail said.
To gauge how Chinese students in the US view these interactions and deal with such criticism, he conducted a small-scale qualitative study including 18 Chinese students at a public research University in Hawaii. Among the students, 15 were graduates, one was an undergraduate and two were assistant professors with US college degrees. Six of the subjects had lived in the US for five to seven months, while the others had been in the country for at least two years. In the study, each respondent was asked to answer an open-ended written survey. From their responses, Hail identified four different modes of reaction to this criticism. Inside Highered summarizes the findings nicely:
• “Status-based”: In this mode, as Hail describes it, “the students were upset because they felt that the status of China or Chinese people was being attacked or threatened in some way.” They viewed criticisms of a specific aspect of China as equivalent to an attack on the status of the whole nation or its people. In one case, for example, a participant in the study described asking an American what she thought of China: “She [the student] said that China’s pollution was very serious. I asked if she’d seen the [Beijing] Olympics. She said she saw the opening ceremony. She asked me if I thought that the festivities reflected China’s yearning to develop and protect the environment. After this I felt very unhappy.”
• “Loyalty-based”: As Hail writes, many Chinese students felt it was important to demonstrate loyalty to China in talking to Americans. He notes that though the survey respondents were critical of some aspects of their home country, they also thought it important to establish their loyalty to their country in a conversation with Hail, an American researcher. As he writes, “While being interviewed, several Chinese participants started to complain about various problems in China, only to follow their complaints with an expression of guilt and a desire to re-establish their sense of loyalty to China. For example, one student, after spending several minutes talking about corruption in China, suddenly asked me, ‘Do you think that I’m a traitor? I shouldn’t say bad things about China to you.’ ”
• “Harmony-seeking”: In this mode, students simply sought to avoid speaking of sensitive subjects with Americans in order to avoid conflict. They were thus uncomfortable when political subjects arose. “You know, when we are talking [about China] I feel that they are misunderstanding me, but I don’t want to cause personal conflict with each other, so I always avoid talking [about] this kind of topic,” a Chinese graduate student told Hail. “But I feel that sometimes my American friends, I think they have this kind of bias... maybe when they go to China [and] see the situation themselves, they will find the truth.”
• “Utilitarian”: Still other Chinese students in Hail’s study were sensitive to the practical effect of any criticism of their country. They objected to criticism that they believed was intended to undermine China’s national interests. As a graduate student told Hail, “If what [Americans] criticize is about China being more behind other countries, this kind of criticism stings, but Chinese of course have the right to listen or not listen, use or not use this criticism to improve China. But if they want to divide China, and make Tibet and Taiwan split from China, and then use human rights as an excuse, I personally think this kind of criticism is incorrect. Although the Chinese government needs to improve in some ways, the most important thing for China is to be united. ...So as a Chinese person, I am strongly against this kind of criticism.”
Hail added that “There’s a very special context surrounding interactions between Chinese and American students," and said that Chinese students' defensiveness is also a mechanism used to counteract US biases against China, especially as seen in American media.
As one female respondent was quoted in the study as saying:“[My American friends] will tell me, ‘I heard that in China you can’t do that.’ I will say, ‘No, that’s not true!’