Students as a commodity, Sino-US trade war edition

Readers will by now be familiar with the list of industries impacted by the US China trade war. These include soyabeans, cars, steel, and semiconductors.

But one commodity is increasingly important to how the tensions play out: students.

The Chinese state media is now saying the government will issue a warning on the risk of studying in the US. Here is Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, on (where else) Twitter:

And here is the South China Morning Post, providing a quote from CCTV which relayed the government’s official warning.

For a period of time now, some Chinese students in the US have faced situations where their visas were restricted or delayed, the period of validity was shortened, or [their applications] were rejected.

The ministry wants to remind [Chinese] students and scholars to raise their risk assessment, strengthen their preventative awareness, and make the appropriate preparations.

The twenty-first century has brought with it an international market for prestige English-language education. For countries like the US, UK, Australia and Canada, the high fees paid by overseas students subsidise the costs of domestic education. For the countries that provide the students, the market is a way of exercising geopolitical influence.

There is no more influential country than China. As we pointed out last summer, the UK university sector is extremely dependent on Chinese student flows. In the case of Australia, the Chinese government issued a similar warning after an escalation in political tensions between the two countries.

Another precedent is the case of Saudi Arabia and Canada — which we highlighted in August. In that case, state television announced the country would suspend all of its educational exchange programs, after Ottawa expressed support for jailed human rights activists.

Did anyone see this coming? The English-language export business has emerged so organically that it’s hard to believe its long-term structural consequences were thought through.

The US, as the world’s most powerful nation, is a slightly different case to Canada, the UK and Australia. It has cancelled the visas of dozens of Chinese scholars over the past year, as the China’s official state response points out. This is what initiated the involvement of education as a bargaining chip in the trade war.

China just upped the ante, implying it believes it has the upper hand.

Related links:
Saudi Arabia vs. Canadia, the education angle – FT Alphaville
Student flows with Chinese characteristics – FT Alphaville
The real student politics – FT Alphaville

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