Are Chinese students a threat?

A question of politics and perception

Andreas Pacher

International relations, Education | Asia, The World

31 May 2018

Dehumanising Chinese students as a ‘threat’ and instrumental tools of an authoritative government, rather than as young and ambitious individuals, is a matter of political perception, Andreas Pacher writes.

Young Chinese studying abroad are about to suffer the fate of panda bears and Confucius Institutes. They are identified, correctly, as Chinese students, but with an ominous emphasis on ‘Chinese’.

This is what FBI Director Christopher Wray recently did in a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the greatest threats facing the US. He expressed concerns about Chinese studying in the US by linking them to the ‘China threat’ discourse.

This identification immediately politicises the students, because what the attribute refers to in this context is not a geographically delineated space stretching from the Manchurian Plains to the Tibetan Plateau, and not an interesting cultural East Asian trait filled with dragons and Tang-dynasty poems. Rather, it brands them with the stigma of what is perceived as an authoritarian government repeatedly condemned for systemic human rights breaches.

In this perception, Chinese students transform from individual living beings into foreign political instruments which intrude into ‘our’ country.

More on this: Chinese Communist Party influence: Why the critics are wrong

This is also how panda bears and Confucius Institutes are usually recognised in world politics. China has donated or loaned panda bears to selected countries creating diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis those recipients, which it has often made use of in the past. Confucius Institutes – the official Chinese educational facilities established in at least 140 countries since 2004 – are similarly regarded as suspicious tools. Western observers have alleged that they are an endeavour to co-opt foreign publics into viewing China in a favourable light.

And now come Chinese students. In 2016-17, over 350,000 students from China were enrolled in US universities, more than quadruple the number a decade earlier. As the FBI director testified in a Senate committee hearing:

“The use of non-traditional collectors [of information], especially in the academic setting  –  whether it’s professors, scientists, students  – we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country… They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of this. One of the things we’re trying to do is to view the Chinese threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat, on their end.”

This discourse replaces students of flesh and blood with the political perception of the territories they come from. It does the opposite of what J. William Fulbright, the man behind the eponymous Fulbright Scholarships, intended to achieve with his initiative of global student exchanges. Fulbright’s aim was “to convert nations into peoples”, and to contribute “to an emotional awareness that other countries are populated not by doctrines that we fear but by individuals like ourselves”.

In contrast, the ‘China threat’ discourse converts young, intelligent, active students into political enemies – ones who can be blamed for no more than their citizenship.

The Western concept of a ‘China threat’, invoking an authoritarian government’s military build-up, becomes projected onto people who may have never been involved in ‘threatening’ the West or in devising military strategies.

Politics often proceeds in dehumanised terms, as is best illustrated in the most influential theory of international relations – neo-realism. This theory describes an international system of power-seeking states operating mechanically in an anarchical structure, devoid of human emotions.

More on this: China’s influence in Australia: Maintaining the debate

But this notion of political representation of people and things is not uncontested and alternative approaches do exist. Rather than embracing a state-centred perspective based on the fundamental force of a so-called national interest, Pope Benedict XVI has called for a human-centred politics oriented towards the foundational force of caritas (brotherly love).

Such a path is in line not only with Fulbright’s notion of “international human relations” (as opposed to a de-humanised international relations), but also with a broader trend in the social sciences operating under the label of ‘new materialism’. The new materialism calls for divesting humans and non-humans of their (unseen) representational attributes by instead focusing on their (seen) presentational aspects. Proponents of this idea believe the way objects and people present themselves to us is more important than what they are perceived as representing.

But the political reality of international relations remains centred on states, not humans. The dynamics of politics reduce people to signs; by converting individuals into polities, policymakers support the dehumanised mechanics of neo-realism, in which humans do not act, only states.

‘Love thy Chinese student’ is unthinkable as long as China is regarded as a threat.

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