20111124-WIKI C Peking_University_Institue_for_Chinese_Classics.jpg
students att the Peking University Institue
for Chinese Classics

In 2015, more than 520,000 people left China to study abroad. In 2014, 459,800 Chinese went abroad to study, an 11.1 percent increase over 2013,according to the Ministry of Education. Most financed their studies on their own or had scholarships from a U.S. university. Only 4.6 percent of them were sponsored by the Chinese government. [Source: China Real Time, Wall Street Journal May 29, 2015]

The China Daily reported: “China has the largest number of overseas students in the world, with a record 1.27 million studying abroad at the end of 2010, according to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Education. About 285,000 of them were new students who began their overseas studies last year, up 24 percent over 2009, said the ministry. Self-financed students now make up the largest group of those going overseas, and among more than 100 countries they selected, more than 90 percent of the students chose to study in the top 10 destinations - the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, Singapore, France, Germany and Russia. [Source: Chen Jia, China Daily, April 18, 2011]

"Due to more higher-education opportunities available abroad, an increasing number of young Chinese students go overseas to evade the highly competitive national college entrance exam," Li Jing, an application writer who works for an overseas study agency in Beijing, told China Daily. For the universities, assessing these applicants' command of English is a challenge since their parents have usually hired agents to write their application essays, experts said.

After completed four years at a Chinese university many students study abroad. In the early days most of the students who studied abroad were on government scholarships. These days most are from families wealthy enough to send their children overseas to study. "Since China's economy is booming, more middle-class families can afford to send their children abroad for education," Wang Qiang, a Beijing resident who plans to send his son to study in Australia, told China Daily. "Even short-term overseas study experience could win my son better job opportunities here in the future," he said.

The best and brightest Chinese students tend to go to American and European universities.In 2003, there were 18,000 Chinese studying at British universities, making them the largest group of foreign students there. About 35 percent of them took mostly business and accounting courses, 14 percent focused on computers and 11 percent on engineering. The universities like the Chinese students because they work harder than their British counterparts and they bring in much needed money.

History of Chinese Students Studying Abroad

China began sending thousands of students abroad in the late 1970s to help develop a highly educated elite with the technological and managerial skills necessary for modernization. Two-thirds of them went to the U.S. By the 1990s Chinese and foreign publishers had embarked on a massive book translation program. At that time the study of English was booming in China, and interest in the U.S. was strong. The Voice of America has 150 million listeners in China. [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002, adapted from a December 1996 U.S. State Department report]

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “Deng Xiaoping's Open Door policy brought an unprecedented exodus of both faculty and students to Western countries. The resulting increase in educational, scientific, and commercial contacts with the outside world brought China closer to its long-held goal of acquiring world-wide scientific and technical knowledge through Western educational institutions. From 1978 to 1998, some 147,000 students went abroad to study in Western institutions. In academic year 1999-2000, there were 54,466 Chinese students in the United States, topping the number of any nationality of foreign students in that country. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“On the other hand, with the unparalleled number of China's brightest students leaving the country, the government soon faced a "brain-drain" dilemma. Only 53,040 students, or less than 36 percent of those who left, eventually returned. To counter the "brain-drain" problem, Chinese officials have introduced specific regulations since the mid-1980s. First, Chinese students are supposed to work for a specified period at home before going abroad for further study. Any violators of the rule are punished financially. For example, a college graduate must work in China for five years before going abroad. Anybody who wants to leave China earlier must turn in money to the state, about 5,000 yuan for a year. A graduate student (MA degree holder) must serve three years before leaving China. For every unfulfilled year, the student needs to pay 6,000 to 7,000 yuan to the state. Second, in terms of visa restrictions, all state-sponsored students went to the United States on the more restrictive "J" visas. Upon completion of their studies, U.S. rules require such visa holders to return to their home countries for at least two years before being eligible to work in the United States. Third, all visa-extension requests must be forwarded to the Ministry of Education; the U.S. Embassy in Beijing will not grant an extension without the Commission's approval. Finally, all students are required to sign contractual agreements with their Chinese employers before leaving China. These agreements should specify obligations on both sides, including what the employer needs and what the student will study, the posting of bonds, the guarantor's signature, and compensation if the student failed to return on schedule.

Top 10 sources of foreign students at U.S. universities and colleges in 2011-2012: 1) China (194,029); 2) India (100,270); 3) South Korea (72,295); 4) Saudi Arabia (34,139); 5) Canada (26,821); 6) Taiwan (23,250); 7) Japan (19,996); 8) Vietnam (15,572); 9) Mexico (13,393); and 10) Turkey (11, 973).

China had 54,466 student — the most of any country — in the U.S. in 1999. Japan was second with 48,872 students. In the 2010-2011 academic year China had 157,558 students in the U.S. — still the most of any country — while Japan has fallen to seventh with 21,290 students. [Source: Institute of International Education]

Many Overseas Chinese Students from Rich Families and the Provinces

Many overseas Chinese students are from the provinces. This is in part because kids from the provinces have a harder time securing places at a prestigious Chinese universities than the kids from large cities and those whose parents have money choose to send their kids abroad than settle for what are perceived as second-rate schools in China. [Source: Chris Buckley, Sinosphere, New York Times, March 10, 2015]

Terry Crawford, the chief executive of InitialView, a company that performs assessment interviews of Chinese students applying to American and British universities, told the New York Times: “Students from Beijing and Shanghai who have more resources might — on average — come off in an interview as more urbane, but I would say that about one-third of the students from second- and third-tier cities in populous provinces knock our socks off.I think the lower chances of admission to a top Chinese college is a big reason that so many of the top students applying abroad are not from Beijing or Shanghai.”

Impact of Studying Abroad on Chinese Students

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: For Chinese citizens, the effects of studying in the United States are rarely as simple as the cliché of coming home with wildly different ideas.Analyses of foreign students have found that Chinese citizens are more likely than others to stay in America. A 2014 report by Oak Ridge Institute shows 85 percent of the 4,121 Chinese students who received doctorates in science and engineering from American universities in 2006 were still in the U.S. five years later. Still, that marked an improvement: The stay rate had been 98 percent a decade earlier. According to a study by the National Science Foundation; Ninety-two per cent of Chinese graduates remain in America five years after receiving a Ph.D., compared to forty-one per cent of South Koreans, the researchers loosely attributed the disparity to differences in family pressure and job opportunities. Going home doesn’t always feel easy, either. A 2009 survey, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, found that seventeen per cent of Chinese respondents considered it difficult to settle in the U.S. — but that twice as many, thirty-four per cent, reported difficulty going home, because of reverse culture shock, pollution, and other factors. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, April 6, 2015; Didi Tang, Associated Press, August 6, 2016]

“In the most thorough look at how studying abroad shapes the views of Chinese returnees, Donglin Han and David Zweig found that those who had lived overseas — in this case, those who had spent time in Canada and Japan — believed more strongly in “coöperative internationalism,” and were slightly less supportive of assertive nationalism, compared to members of the middle class who had never lived abroad. But the authors also noted a remarkable point: “A strikingly significant proportion of returnees support Chinese foreign policy, regardless of ‘whether it is right or wrong.’ ” This may be a result of self-selection (nationalistic students are more likely to return), but it also underscores the magnifying effect of living far away from home. Anyone who has lived overseas probably knows or can recall the temptation to hold fast to national characteristics, partly in contrast with an adopted land and partly out of resentment of foreigners’ criticisms. Cheng Li, of the Brookings Institution, has noted that, contrary to the myth of “democracy by osmosis” — the notion that simply living in the U.S. will make foreigners more congenial to democratic-liberal ideas — many of the most strident nationalist books in China are written by people who have returned from abroad.

“If Xi Mingze” — Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s daughter, who studied at Harvard — “were to someday choose a public life, we may discover what she brought home to the dinner-table conversation. In the meantime, other Chinese citizens abroad have helped to complicate our understanding of democracy by osmosis. Earlier this year, a fascinating piece called “Patriotism Abroad,” published in the Journal of Studies in International Education, compiled the views of anonymous Chinese faculty and students living outside the country. A woman teaching in the natural sciences said, “In China, people often complain. But in America, I want to see the positive side of China. It has something to do with pride, you know; I want to feel proud to be Chinese.”

Chinese Students at Japanese Universities

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Tsinghua University in 1949
About 70,000 Chinese students are studying at Japanese universities, making them largest group among Japan’s 120,000 international students. Even so the number is relatively low because anti-Japanese feelings still remain in China and Japanese universities are not respected as much as the Western counterparts by ordinary Chinese.

More and more Chinese students are studying in Japan as it becomes easier for them to get visas, These days the majority of qualified students that apply for student visas get them. In the past many of them were rejected because of immigration restrictions put in place in the early 2000s after reports of Chinese students committing crimes to cover tuition and living expenses.

Chinese students entering Japan must have at least an elementary understanding of Japanese and a residence qualification authorization certificate — a document that used to be hard to get but is much easier to get now as Chinese have become wealthier and are able to prove they have enough money to cover their expenses. In China, there is high demand for Japanese language classes to meet to minimum requirements for entry to Japan.

Chinese College Coaching Service in China

The college consulting industry in China, Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “with numerous agencies promising to make Chinese student’s academic dreams come true, often through questionable practices. One company, Best Education, has offices across China and charges clients an average of 500,000 renminbi for writing clients’ essays, training them for the visa interview at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and providing career guidance. “The students just supply their information and we do all the work,” said one representative, who requested anonymity to protect his job. Best Education offers a 50 percent refund if an applicant is rejected by the student’s chosen schools.” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, May 20, 2011]

“Chinese agencies may not want to alert colleges to their involvement, because applications that clearly appear to come from agencies are rejected by U.S. colleges, but the agencies promote their success in Mandarin. The Future Boshi Overseas Education Agency in Beijing gives a tally on its Web site of clients admitted by each university, including two to Harvard in 2010 and one in 2011.Reached by telephone, an agency representative said the company did a lot more than just polish résumés. “If a client’s English is poor, our trained professionals can write the essay to make sure it looks perfect,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions from her employer.”

“The industry’s aggressive practices have been condemned by many American colleges, which say they disapprove of students’ families hiring consultants. “Students have a responsibility to identify their own path toward future goals, rather than keying in how to get into a certain school,” said Barbara Knuth, the vice provost at Cornell University in New York State, who oversees undergraduate admissions.”

“Harvard said in an e-mail that it “reviews every application individually and has no interaction” with college admission consulting firms, “though we are certainly aware of their existence.” The University of Pennsylvania, which accepted Ms. Lu from Shenzhen, did not respond to requests for comment. Despite the universities’ unease with these practices, application consulting has proved too profitable to ignore.”

ThinkTank College Coaching Service in China

The founder of ThinkTank, Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, is ‘Steven Ma, 32, a former Wall Street analyst who started the company as a business for preparing students for college entrance tests in 2002 before expanding into application consulting in 2006, starting with seven students. In 2010, that number had risen to 300, including 75 from China. The company said it made about $7 million last year, with 50 percent from admission consulting. ThinkTank said it was able to distill the college admissions process into an exact science, which Mr. Ma compared with genetic engineering. “We make unnatural stuff happen,” he said. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, May 20, 2011]

“Students, whose parents often pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, are molded by ThinkTank into well-rounded, socially conscious overachievers through a regimen often beginning as early as the year before entering high school. The company designs extracurricular activities for the students; guides them in essay writing; tutors them for the SAT, the U.S. college admission exam; and helps them with meet-and-greet sessions with alumni. “There’s a system built by colleges designed to pick out future stars and we are here to crack that system,” Mr. Ma said.

“LuShuang Xu provides an example of that approach. Ms. Xu, who was born and raised in China before emigrating to suburban California at age 9, had high hopes that she would be the first in her family to go to college. But poor results on a practice SAT and a dearth of extracurricular activities convinced Ms. Xu, 17, that she needed a scholastic makeover if she were to make it into a school her parents could brag about to relatives.”

ThinkTank sent her to a public speaking camp, helped her improve her college essay and gave her the e-mail addresses of all the members of the Stanford University history department. At the company’s prompting, she found two internships with department professors. She also enrolled in ThinkTank’s college prep courses, which helped improve her SAT score 410 points to 2160 out of 2400. Next autumn, she will start at Harvard University.

“ThinkTank’s success with students in California’s Asian-American community, which accounts for 90 percent of the company’s American clients, has drawn interest from wealthy parents in China. Mr. Ma opened an office in Shenzhen in 2009 and another in Beijing in 2010. Mr. Ma said that out of 110 mainland students, only one has needed a refund, though two clients have been granted admission only if they pay full tuition.”

“Helping students from China clear the college entry hurdles has presented ThinkTank with a fresh set of challenges. Often they have poor English language skills and have done little with their free time beyond homework. Yet their parents often demand the Ivy League. “We really have to hold their hand and do everything along with them,” Mr. Ma said, including deliberately leaving spelling mistakes on college essays so they look authentic, training them for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and building extracurricular activities from the ground up. ThinkTank has founded Model United Nations groups, built a Web site for a Shanghai student’s photography project to get news media coverage and helped another obtain funding to build a hydroelectric generator. For ambitious Chinese parents, ThinkTank’s sales pitch is difficult to resist. Li Manhong, a homemaker from Beijing, has planned for years to send her 17-year-old son to an American college, going so far as to enroll him in a private high school in Portland, Oregon, for the past two years to improve his English and his résumé.”

“After learning about ThinkTank from a neighbor, Ms. Li persuaded her husband to sign a contract for 90,000 renminbi, which focuses on nine selective U.S. schools. ThinkTank will train her son for the SAT and help him pick internships and even college courses once he becomes a freshman. Ms. Li sees the cost as an investment in her son’s future. “Whatever it takes to reach his maximum potential,” she said. “It’s worth it.”

Fraudulent SAT Scores and "Help" on Essays and Applications Help Some Chinese Students into U.S. Schools

In June 2015, according to the Washington Post, a federal grand jury indicted 15 Chinese nationals in a scheme in which they paid up to $6,000 for other people in the United States to take the SAT, the GRE, and other college and graduate school standardized entrance exams for them to help them gain entry into U.S. universities. They were charged in a conspiracy to defraud the College Board, which owns the tests, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the tests. According to the indictment, “The conspirators had counterfeit Chinese passports made and sent to the United States, which were used by the imposters to defraud ETS administrators into believing that they were other people, namely the conspirators who would receive the benefit of the imposter’s test score for use at American colleges and universities.” Some of the defendants actually won admissions to U.S. schools; one was arrested at Northeastern University in Boston. [Source: Valerie Strauss, Washington Post June 3, 2015]

Justin Bergman wrote in Time: In 2012 David Zhu joined “an exodus of Chinese students boarding planes for the leafy, beer-soaked campuses of American colleges and universities. Zhu, currently a university student in Shanghai, will be enrolling at Oregon State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business — a dream his parents have had since they started saving a $157,000 nest egg for his education. But like many Chinese students who don’t speak English fluently, Zhu might not have been accepted without a little help. The 21-year-old hired an education agent in China to clean up and “elaborate” on the essay he submitted as part of his application. “Actually, the agency helped my application to some extent,” he says. [Source: Justin Bergman, Time, July 26, 2012]

Many of Chinese students would probably never make it to America without a middleman to pave the way. According to a 2010 report by Zinch China, a consultancy that advises U.S. colleges and universities on China, 8 out of every 10 Chinese undergraduate students use an agent to file their applications. And with such intense competition among agents — not to mention ambitious students and their overzealous parents — cheating is rampant, the group says. It estimates that 90 percent of recommendation letters from Chinese students are fake, 70 percent of college application essays are not written by the students, and half of all high school transcripts are falsified. “The world of higher education is becoming extremely competitive, much more so than it was even 10 years ago, and I think the kids are looking for an edge,” says Tom Melcher, chairman of Zinch China. “Everyone is looking around and saying, ‘Well, everyone else is cheating, why shouldn’t I?’”

“Another issue that concerns some admissions officers in the U.S. is where the money is coming from. Not only are agents paid by families in China — up to $10,000 before bonuses, according to Zinch — some American schools also have contracts with agents that guarantee them a commission for each student they enroll. This practice constitutes a potential conflict of interest, says Philip Ballinger, head of a commission launched by the Washington-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) to study the issue of foreign recruiting. “If money is first, then perhaps the interest of student or the person that’s involved is not first,” he says.

Image Sources: 1) Louis Perrochon ; 2, 3) Ohio State University; 4) Nolls China website ; 5) Bucklin archives ; 6) Poco Pico blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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