Deteriorating US-China Relations at the Micro Level: Chinese Students Town Hall

On June 5th, the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) and the International Students and Programs Office (ISPO) hosted a “Chinese Students Town Hall” event, which aimed to bring attention to how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Chinese international students, heightened stereotypes against the Chinese ethnicity, and prevented students from acquiring summer internships or returning to China. The event concluded with a broader discussion about worsening U.S.-China relations. The town hall featured 21st Century China Center Chair Dr. Susan Shirk and Director Dr. Lei Guang, UCSD professors⁠—Dr. Barry Naughton and Dr. Richard Madsen⁠—, as well as student representatives. Staff Writer Martín Olvera covers the event and offers his own perspective here for China Focus.


The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has put a pause on countless economic sectors around the world and exacerbated tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and China have collaborated closely for three decades on developing vaccines and handling issues such as Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases (EID), this joint effort largely fell by the wayside under the Trump administration. The COVID-19 crisis has further strained the already tense relations instigated by the trade war. From mutual criticism of negligence, inadequate action, and even conspiracy theories regarding the outbreak’s origins, to the Trump administration’s accusations that the WHO is “China centric,” the two countries’ rivalry and blame game have visibly intensified with the pandemic. The worsening of relations between Washington and Beijing has seeped into public opinion, with both countries’ populations growing increasingly wary of each other. A recent Pew survey found that about two-thirds of Americans now hold an unfavorable opinion about China, which is a significant 20 percent increase from its last iteration in 2017. 

Caught in the middle, Chinese international students studying in the United States are facing difficult decisions. Since the COVID-19 wave hit American shores, President Trump imposed a temporary ban on travel from China to stem the spread. China, in return, imposed their own restrictions which included shrinking the permissible number of inbound flights from abroad. With flights limited, this has effectively stranded many Chinese students, who faced sky-high prices for the remaining tickets. Doubling their concerns, tense bilateral relations have increased the uncertainty behind whether students who returned to China for the summer would even be allowed back into the United States to finish their studies. 

Heightening the problem, the Trump administration issued an executive order at the end of May that could have three main effects: (1) mobilize the State Department to revoke certain graduate student visas, (2) prevent the issuing of visas to Chinese STEM students affiliated with China’s “military-civil fusion strategy,” and (3) possibly increase the challenge for Chinese students seeking post-graduate employment under Optional Practical Training (OPT). Alternative options for these students in China are also questionable, as the domestic university admissions process is conditional upon the national annual entrance exam that takes place in June; for Chinese students unable to complete their degrees abroad, they would miss the application window, not to mention the existing setback of delayed job hunting. The Chinese Students Town Hall discussion took place within this discouraging backdrop. 

Panel Reflection: thoughts from the “average” Chinese student

Dulce Dorado, the Director of ISPO, kicked off the event with a brief presentation about the resources available for international students during this stressful time. After her presentation, Dr. Lei Guang introduced the participating student panelists, a mix of undergraduate and graduate students hailing from different parts of campus.

First to speak was Cecilia Cai (Xinyu), a representative from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at UCSD. She confirmed the travel dilemma discussed previously and noted that the current situation made it impossible for her to fly back home. Cecilia continued with another important point: even the students with sufficient funds to purchase the leftover tickets would face an even greater risk of sabotaging the remainder of their U.S. education. Anqi Dong, Vice President of the Chinese Union on campus, echoed similar grievances. Both agreed that US-China relations are currently very tense due to the trade war, inflammatory rhetoric, and the reputational power struggle between the countries’ leaders.

The other two panelists, Songyue Zhang and Qiao Ye, representing the graduate student organization China Focus at GPS, also presented their thoughts on the current situation. Ms. Zhang, the President of China Focus, pointed out that recent events have left many students and graduates reconsidering their initial enthusiasm for seeking employment in the United States because of rising anti-China sentiment. She also mentioned that it has been challenging for international Chinese students to manage their mental health, comfort their friends and families back home, and simultaneously keep their grades afloat. 

Ms. Ye, the digital media manager for the China Focus journal, also brought up how xenophobic attacks and insults against Chinese students have increased in frequency. She proposed that a Pan-Asian support group be established for internationals and American-born Asians alike to come together and discuss targeted policies at the macro level down to person-to-person cultural interactions and biases. Ms. Ye also referenced diversionary theory as a root motive for the blame game in US-China relations: domestic issues remain unsolved, and to sway public opinion, the “opponent” country becomes a scapegoat for a variety of accusations. Unfortunately, the repercussions have led to firsthand experiences of increasingly negative stereotypes that extend to not only Chinese students, but those misclassified as Chinese due to appearance.

China Experts’ Concluding Thoughts

Professors Barry Naughton and Susan Shirk generally agreed with the prevailing sentiment that US-China relations were very strained and would get worse before they got better. Dr. Shirk, in her discussion of the Trump administration’s most recent use of national security to restrict Chinese student visas, hinted that the policy might be a “slippery slope.” Dr. Shirk raised the argument that much confusion surrounds what constitutes a “civilian-military institution” and the proof of PLA-Chinese university ties might be murky in most cases. Universities in the US are concerned about negative effects on future enrollment of Chinese students; this policy may prove both intellectually and monetarily draining for university programs.

Concluding the faculty panel, Dr. Richard Madsen, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UC San Diego, outlined the domestic interests in the “downward spiral” of US-China relations. He pointed to American elites as the “winners,” using China to offshore their profits during the countries’ mutual accusations over COVID-19 response. Dr. Madsen also argued that Trump’s “tough on China” verbiage is but a political ploy to garner support from his supporters and maintain said approval for the election season. 

Overall, the event gathered diverse perspectives and shed light on a number of troubling issues pertaining to the evolving US-China relationship. Though the panelists’ viewpoints depicted a grim reality, the town hall facilitated meaningful and respectful discussion. Events such as this one serve to connect broad policies with their effects on individuals. Creating a platform for candid conversation and reflection is but a catalyst in improving US-China mutual understanding, one person at a time.

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Martín Olvera

Martín Olvera is a Master of International Affairs candidate at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy studying International Politics with a focus on South Korea. He graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a BA in Political Science and minor in History. His research interests include Sino-Korea relations, East Asian national security, and analyzing new military trends in the region.

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