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Checking Their Privilege

Long-standing privileges given to international students on Chinese campuses have recently generated online controversies. Now there are calls to end the disparities

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

After a slew of incidents regarding preferential treatment offered to foreign students generated several weeks of netizen outrage, campuses and education policymakers have come under pressure to explain this apparent bias toward international students.  

Starting in July, there was a public outcry after a key university in eastern China was accused of trying to butter up foreign students by offering to pair them with up to three study buddies, mainly of the opposite gender. In 2018, the university paired 47 international students with 141 volunteers, most of whom were women. Shandong University later announced in an apology letter that it would conduct a thorough review of its buddy program. 

Angry netizens were not placated when they later discovered on the university’s website that the university had organized 25 Chinese students to help out a student from Zimbabwe who broke his leg in a car accident in May 2018. The post said that volunteers should be “dedicated, full of compassion and responsible and diligent,” with all costs covered by the university. One student visited the hospitalized student every day – it may seem excessive, but in China, relatives normally bring food and necessities to someone in hospital.  

Shandong University and its female students have been stigmatized ever since, with netizens instigating online campaigns to expose and condemn their view of what is widespread favoritism for overseas students. 

Double Standards 
According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Education (MOE), 492,185 international students from 196 countries were studying at 1,004 universities in the Chinese mainland in 2018, including 258,122 students pursuing a degree.  

The ministry is offering more scholarships for international students, up from 1.55 billion yuan (US$220m) in 2012 to 3.92 billion yuan (US$556m) in 2019. In 2018, 63,041 foreign students received a Chinese Government Scholarship, accounting for 12.81 percent of the total international students in China. Many others receive a variety of grants from either local governments or universities. 

The Chinese Government Scholarship offers 59,200 (US$8,390) to 99,800 yuan (US$14,147) to international recipients. According to the China Scholarship Council, international students with full scholarships are exempt from tuition fees, accommodation and medical insurance. Undergraduates receive a subsidy of 2,500 yuan (US$355) per month and the stipends rise to 3,000 yuan (US$425) for master’s students and 3,500 yuan (US$495) for PhD students. The subsidies for Chinese PhD candidates at leading universities average 2,300 yuan (US$325) per month. 

These apparent double standards between Chinese and international students on campuses have existed for a long time, and in addition to the differences in living allowances, inequalities exist in other aspects. As more international students are attracted to Chinese universities, the gap has enlarged.  

In late July, Capital Normal University in Beijing was accused of discriminating against Chinese students after a photo of the admission rules for a campus swimming pool went viral. The notice said that faculty could use it for 60 yuan (US$8.5), and international students could enter at half price. Chinese students, however, are excluded because of the “limited capacity.” 

The university responded on July 18 via social media network Weibo, saying that the pool was small and part of the Grand Building, a former hotel. It is only meant to be used by staff and students who live or work in the Grand Building, and the notice had already been amended. This post received more than 160 million views, with many still saying it was unforgiveable. 

Also in July, Shandong University of Finance and Economics was forced to backtrack after it asked some of its students living in a dormitory to move to another place 20 minutes away on foot in order to let international students live there, because their dorms have better facilities such as en suite toilets. The notice received strong opposition from students and the university had to halt the relocation. 

Yu Shougang, a lecturer at the College of International Cooperative Education at Harbin Engineering University, said that international students at his university live in an independent residential building and more than 2,300 international students from at least 40 countries had studied there. Most were from Russia, South Korea and Thailand, and 60 percent of them had received scholarships. 

“International student dorms have kitchens, bathrooms, TVs, refrigerators, washing machines and telephones, and you can even watch overseas TV programs,” he told NewsChina. “Most Chinese students live in dorms where each room has four or even eight beds.” Yu said that international students in his school usually have separate standards for enrollment, exams and graduation. 

“International students could sit some exams with books and notes. Teachers tend to turn a blind eye to international students who are absent from classrooms,” a Cambodian student studying international trade at the university told NewsChina on condition of anonymity. “If a Chinese student misses several classes in a semester, they will probably be given a fail. International students generally receive more lenient treatment.” 

While this may be true, foreign students are usually limited in their accommodation choices, often to a foreigner-only designated building. These accommodation blocks, while often being of a higher standard, also cost more to live in. Foreign students who do not qualify for a bursary will be paying a lot more than Chinese students for their tuition and accommodation, which is generally the case for all international students. 

Apart from the disparities on campuses, the malpractice of some international students and the relatively light penalties also generated public outcry. A wave of sentiment against the super-national treatment for foreigners is taking over Chinese social media. 

In July, an Egyptian man who studies at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University in southeastern China was caught breaking traffic rules by carrying a woman on his electric scooter. When the traffic officer stopped him, the student refused to cooperate and shoved the officer at least five times. The man did not face any legal punishments except for the traffic offense, and he only received a warning from his university.  

The hashtag “Foreign Student Violates Traffic Rules and Shoves Traffic Police Officer” received more than 110 million views and 48,000 comments on Weibo. Most netizens questioned whether the punishment was so lenient because he was a foreigner. 

Chen Meng, a lawyer from Liaoning Zhaoming Law Firm, told our reporter that many Chinese people, particularly law enforcement officers, believe that any incident related to foreigners is not a trivial matter, and they tend to handle these cases with special procedures which can disguise a major incident as a minor one. 

“An inferiority complex and blind arrogance coexist in China. We should be neither xenophobic nor xenocentric,” she said. “Equality before the law should be the norm for any nationalities in China which is the basic standard of the international community.”

Prestigious Institutions
According to the medium and long-term guidelines on education reform and development released by the MOE in 2010, China aims to have globally competitive universities which are attractive to international students. In order to implement these guidelines, the MOE introduced the Study In China Project, which wants to lure 500,000 international students by 2020. Chinese education policymakers realize that internationalization is an important factor in building world-leading universities. Expanding the enrollment of international students will significantly add competitiveness to Chinese universities. 

According to the Study In China project, the growth in numbers of overseas students pursing degree courses should rise by 4.66 percent year-on-year and at least 50 new English-taught programs should be introduced across participating institutions every three years. Universities nationwide have enrolled more international students and launched more programs to meet their needs.  

Many of the new cohort of students come from developing nations, and ones where China hopes to expand its Belt and Road Initiative. The subjects offered for scholarships are often connected to practical subjects such as engineering and medicine. 

For example, southwest China’s Yunnan Province pledged in 2010 to attract 30,000 international students by 2014 and 100,000 international students by 2020. In 2015, Beijing education authority implemented the Double Top University Plan which encouraged local universities to boost their international rankings and recruit more foreign students through offering a package of special budgets and support measures.  

Despite the increasing budgets and numbers of international students, China is yet to become a top destination for top students from the West, according to a report released by the Renmin University of China in May. The report on foreign students in China over the past 70 years revealed that most international students in China are from developing countries and only 22.95 percent of students are from developed countries. In addition, the effectiveness of scholarships provided to international students leaves much to be desired. 

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Education Research Institute, argued that priority should be given to the quality rather than the quantity of overseas students. He added that many world leading universities have a cohort of over 20 percent of international students and most world university rankings have basic requirements on the proportion of international students. The ratio of international students is one of the major indicators used to compile the QS World University Rankings, while The Times Higher Education World University Rankings attaches great importance to international diversity. 

“Chinese universities have climbed up on most rankings rapidly in recent years, but they remain unattractive to top overseas students. Even though China is the third-largest destination for international students and the biggest destination in Asia, the number of top international students in China remains few and far between,” he said. 

In the opinion of Cao Chun, an associate professor of education at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, Jilin Province, many Chinese universities attracted international students through generous scholarships and preferential treatments. It has worked to improve the rankings of most domestic universities through admitting more international students, and the rising ranking will accordingly enable universities to obtain more education resources form the MOE. 

“In order to attract more international students, many Chinese universities have to provide ‘nanny services’ for them, far better than the treatment of Chinese students,” he told NewsChina. Take Shandong University for example. It has a budget of nearly 60 million yuan (US$8.5m) for international students in 2019, which is 765 times higher than the money spent to support Chinese students from the university abroad (77,700 yuan, or US$11,000). Out of 60,000 students enrolled, 3,000 are international, according to Shandong University data.  

On the one side, there is the perception that many international students live a life of ease and leisure while some Chinese students from poor families have to live frugally. Cao said the contrast has generated a lot of public complaints and Shandong University has become the outlet to express their frustrations. 

“Attracting international students by lowering entrance standards and increasing scholarships will boost the number in the short term, but over time it will do more harm than good to promote the internalization of Chinese universities,” Cao said. 

Equal Treatment
On July 20, the MOE issued a set of rules and stated that international students will be broadly treated the same as the local student body in terms of management, while respecting the language and cultural differences of international students. The ministry said that overseas students would receive severe punishment if they break the Chinese law and regulations. 

The MOE said it will improve management of the enrollment of international students and the administration of the Chinese Government Scholarship. It will strip the right to give scholarships from universities found to have recruited international students illegally or admitted students who are not up to standards. In 2018, 18 universities nationwide were punished for irregularities in enrollment of foreign students and poor on-campus management. At least 16 universities were banned from enrolling foreign students. 

Cao Chun told our reporter that because of the differences in language and education systems, separate recruitment policies for international students are sometimes a good option for Chinese universities.  

But, Cao said that developed countries have mature higher education systems and family incomes are relatively high, so top students often prefer to study at leading universities worldwide. 

“Universities are an important talent pool and China has over the years been plagued by brain drain. China’s higher education system has advantages in comparison with other developing countries,” he said. “China has no choice but to attract students from developing countries first. That is the reason why the construction of world-leading universities is so important.” 

Zhang Shuyu, an associate professor at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, told our reporter that 40 years after China’s reform and opening-up, most Chinese people could treat foreigners and foreign things equally and confidently. For example, the super-national treatment of foreign enterprises gradually disappeared over the years and foreign enterprises have been merged into the Chinese economy through localization strategies to compete with Chinese enterprises on an equal level. 

“In this context, preferential treatment for international students has struck a nerve with the general public,” Zhang said. “Chinese universities have to win respect through raising entrance standards and academic requirements, not through supplication.”