Why support international students?

Should the Chinese government support international student scholarships given limits in funding for local university students?

According to many Chinese netizens, absolutely not.

A couple weeks ago Jiangsu’s Education Bureau released “Jiangsu Exchange Student Action Plan” 《留学江苏行动计划》. According to the document, “every year foreign exchange students can receive between RMB 50-90,000 (US$8,150-$24,000) in government subsidies and grants”. This announcement quickly created quite a stir on Chinese online platforms, as many users decried the injustice of providing money to foreigners in spite of domestic poverty.

One website polled users, asking: how do you feel about the large amounts of financial aid provided to foreign exchange students? The responses were overwhelmingly one-sided: out of the nearly 38,000 people who responded, only 14% responded that they “can understand” these subsides. 86% responded they are “unable to [understand the subsides] in a calm and collected manner” [无法淡定]. Survey Result A quick survey of Chinese blogs and social media confirms this finding, revealing the widespread indignation of many netizens. For instance Jinshi Shenke [今世深刻] writes:

Am I mistaken? Today, although Chinese college students receive hundreds of thousands of dollars, this money is only available to a small number of students. On what basis are foreign students receiving several tens of thousands in aid?

A second user, wuca9988777, posts:

Aren’t there still a lot of poor people in Jiangsu? Do they not still have to worry about tuition? School buildings in dangerous disrepair? Has this financial aid plan been approved by the taxpayers?

A third, Yinghe Wanli Lang [银河万里浪] asks:

Why are we not providing aid for the poor students from Western China?

To explain money disbursed to foreign students, Chinese officials have provided the following rationale:

  1. “The cultivation of these foreign exchange students effectively benefits the establishment of a network of individuals [that facilitate] friendly international relations (国际友好人士网络), and contributes to international relations more broadly.”
  2. “Developing foreign exchanges has benefits for increasing social consumption (社会消费).”

The first reason is very relevant to my research (I will not discuss the second at this time. Haugen [1] has a thorough and interesting discussion of the economic rationale behind Chinese universities’ push for international students). In theories of “soft power” – namely, the ability to obtain policy preferences by getting others to act voluntarily rather than making others act through coercion, by military or economic means (“hard power”) – educational exchanges play a critical role. Scholars like Joseph Nye [2] have theorized that positive experiences abroad potentially lead exchange students to constructively affect policy after returning home. Several scholars, for example, identify the importance of international exchanges to the US during the Cold War in the spread of democratic norms and ideas.

Chinese official rationale for supporting foreign exchanges – building international networks – is therefore aligned with recent scholarship on soft power. It is also echoes the rhetoric of US policymakers. In 2007, for instance, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes noted, “America’s international education and exchange programs have proven to be our single most important public diplomacy tool of the last fifty years” [3].

However, the masses of Chinese netizens that reacted angrily to the Jiangsu government’s announcement clearly do not see it this way.

Does the fact that China is still, in some respects, a “developing country” – e.g. with a per capita GDP a fraction of that of the US – affect the logic of international exchanges? Can the Chinese government afford to expend resources on less-tangible, long term soft power objectives?


[1] Heidi Haugen, “China’s recruitment of African university students: policy efficacy and unintended outcomes,” Globalisation, Societies and Education 11, No.3 (2013): 315-334

[2] Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The means to success in world politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

[3] Margaret O’Mara, “The Uses of the Foreign Students” Social Science History 36, No. 4 (2012): 607.



Filed under Research

4 responses to “Why support international students?

  1. Jon

    It will be interesting to watch the Chinese governmental response (if any) to negative feedback.


  2. Esther Michela

    This policy may not do much for Chinese students, but it is a great boon for students from other poor countries who want to study, like Mongolia for instance.


    • Indeed! One of my friends in the international student dorm is from Hungary and would not be able to be here were it not for these scholarships. Given the difficult economic situation back home, he views his scholarship as a tremendous opportunity.

      In the long run, and perhaps in a subtle, less tangible way, I believe international exchanges have the potential bring tremendous long-term benefit to Chinese society.


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