The past week has brought two welcome developments for US-China education exchanges. Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met on November 15th for what Biden described as “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had” and including a commitment to increasing non-governmental exchanges. In the runup to the meeting, Chinese state media struck a more conciliatory tone toward the US. Meanwhile, IIE released the 2023 Open Doors Report that showed that Chinese enrollments in US universities held steady for the 2022-2023 academic year. These signals of stability come as welcome news among US international admissions offices seeking to chart a recovery of student enrollments from China. All of this and more will be covered in Sunrise’s upcoming webinar “The 6 Key Trends in China that will Shape Recruitment in 2024”.
Biden-Xi Meeting A Big Step in Steadying US-China Relations
On the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco this week, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met for 4 hours, their first face-to-face meeting in a year. The leaders agreed on the resumption of military-to-military communications, joint counter-narcotics efforts, the creation of a dialogue mechanism to address the risks of advanced AI systems, and an expansion of flights between the two countries next year. The number of direct round-trip flights between the US and China is now up to 70 per week.
These agreements also came alongside more conciliatory rhetoric from both sides. Xi said that he wanted to “deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” and that “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.” Biden said that “A stable relationship between the world’s two largest economies is not merely good for the two economies but for the world.” The leaders also had a “clear-headed” and “not heated” discussion on Taiwan.
The meeting followed a joint statement from November 13th from the China Education Association for International Exchange and the Institute of International Education which said that the two sides would encourage "their respective higher education institutions to re-engage as well as grow and deepen their cooperation". "The two sides affirm their commitment to support the two-way flow of students, teachers, scholars, researchers, and administrative staff from universities, as well as [to] leveraging short-term exchange programmes, internship opportunities, summer schools, cultural visits, and research fellowships," it said.
Chinese State Media Strikes a Positive Note
In a pivot away from inflammatory rhetoric in recent months, Chinese state media is moderating its tone toward Washington. Chinese government websites lauded the “positive, comprehensive and constructive” talks. The People's Daily, the largest Party-run media outlet, said that “The Chinese people will never forget an old friend, and that’s an important message we want to send to the American people.” State news agency Xinhua said that “China and the United States’ respective successes are opportunities for each other.” One Weibo user wrote that, “Those big influencers who have made a fortune by criticizing the United States are rapidly changing the topic these days.”
This climb-down in rhetoric is a significant u-turn from the fiery tone of Chinese state media stories in the past year. Popular mutual perceptions in China and the US have hardened in recent years, and popular attitudes shift gradually over time. But for Chinese families concerned about the frosty diplomatic ties between China and the US, it is reassuring to see that high-level relations are improving. For those in international education, it is worthwhile to continue to monitor not only the reality of diplomatic breakthroughs, but also how these developments are reported in Chinese official media and social media platforms like Wechat and Weibo. And of course, in-person recruitment travel in China remains the best way to cut through the noise of online news and engage personally with Chinese families.
IIE Open Doors Report 2023 Shows Steady Chinese Enrollment at US Universities
China remains the largest sending country of international students overall, representing 27.4% of all international students. China had 100,349 undergraduate students, more than triple that of India. Chinese undergraduates alone made up more than the total undergraduate enrollment of the top 6 sending countries combined. Chinese graduate enrollments increased by 2.3% while non-degree students increased by 29%.
These numbers for the 2022-2023 academic year reflect enrollments prior to China’s full reopening in January of 2023, which ended quarantines, limits on passport issuance, and low caps on the number of international flights from China. As a result, enrollments for the 2023-2024 academic year may tack upwards or hold steady.
In IIE’s Fall 2023 Snapshot which summarized self-reported survey data from US universities, 36% of institutions noted increases in new Chinese students, up from 29% in 2022. 70% of universities attribute their increased international enrollment to more active recruitment efforts. Compared to many other growth markets like India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, Chinese incomes are high, with GDP per capita that is 63% - 268% higher than these other markets. Although India is now more populous than China, China’s upper-middle and upper income population is more than 14 times bigger that of India. As a result, Chinese enrollments are more likely to yield higher tuition revenues compared to other growth markets.
US State Department data on monthly visa issuances also suggests that Chinese enrollment is recovering. Visas issued to Chinese students in the first three quarters of 2023 are up 54.86%, following particularly strong growth in the Q3 of 2023.
Based on the Q1-3 trendline, we project that 8,883 visas will be issued in Q4 of 2023, since Q4 visa issuances usually comprise 11% of the annual total. This would bring the total number of visas issued to Chinese students to 89,634, representing a 55.4% increase from 2022 and would come close to the 2021 high of 99,526.
The news of November 2023 comes as welcome news for US-China relations and bilateral education exchanges. Much work remains to be done to improve diplomatic ties and restore education exchange levels. For officials, followthrough on the commitments from the Biden-Xi meetings is essential, and while international universities would do well to renew their engagements in China through recruitment travel, digital marketing, and partnerships. While many challenges remain, those working at the nexus of Sino-US relations and education can take comfort from recent events.