Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Chinese Students Are Under Suspicion In China And The U.S.


China issued a warning this week. Its Ministry of Education told Chinese students to be careful about applying to schools in the United States. Some have trouble getting U.S. visas. As the two countries face a trade war, Chinese media have carried stories about students kept waiting for visas for months.


That is just one of the ways that this is a tense time for Chinese students in the U.S. We're hearing their stories as we report on people with a foot in both worlds. They are the people who feel the pain as the world's two largest economies pull apart.

MARTIN: Steve, this is like the people we heard from yesterday in your story, the Americans at a U.S. university campus in China.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And today we meet Chinese students who came the other way, ventured to the United States but now face suspicion. To protect their identities, NPR's Emily Feng is not naming the American campus where she met some.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It's spring on this American university campus. But Martha, a biomedical science student, isn't outside enjoying the weather.


FENG: Instead, she is in the lab. That clicking is her repeatedly piping cell samples onto slides, putting them under a microscope and then peering into the lens.

MARTHA: So I will know, like, whether treatment or not treatment will change the cell number.

FENG: Martha is one of more than 340,000 Chinese students now studying in the U.S., more than four times the number only a decade earlier, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Now these students have increasingly come under suspicion. Some have even been accused of being agents of the Chinese Communist Party and stealing academic research. That's why all the students you'll hear in this piece asked us to call them by only their first names that they use in the U.S. and to keep the university they go to unnamed. They're afraid of blowback in the U.S. and from China.

MARTHA: I'm scared because of the current political environment. I feel like the Chinese international students are targeted against.

FENG: Chinese students are now required to undergo additional screening for visas in some science and technology fields. Hundreds of Chinese students have been unable to continue their studies because of visa delays due to screening, so Martha hasn't been home in two years because she's afraid if she leaves the U.S., she won't be able to come back.

Political tensions have even crept into her research. Recently, Martha's laboratory supervisor joked that she might be a spy. She was surprised to hear that from a person she knew.

MARTHA: I just felt betrayed. I have daily contact with that person. And I feel like that person should understand who I am.

FENG: Martha sometimes finds herself misunderstood by an increasingly vocal Chinese community, too. Earlier this year, a professor at a U.S. university made national news after emailing graduate students cautioning them not to speak Chinese on campus. Martha took to social media, saying she thought the professor's actions were discriminatory but well-intentioned. That perspective did not sit well with Martha's fellow Chinese students.

MARTHA: And they started to attack me, like, on the Internet and started to say, OK, I'm betraying my people.

FENG: Martha isn't the only one who has to balance communities in both the U.S. and China. Janet (ph) has been in the U.S. for only about six months, studying environmental science. In China, she was steeped in the official Communist Party line. But that narrative is at odds with what she is learning now. Janet struggles to make sense of both narratives.

JANET: And until now, I still don't know the answer.

FENG: A few months ago, a Turkish friend of Janet sent her a news story about China has detained at least 1 million ethnic Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

JANET: I was really shocked.

FENG: She was so curious, she began a research project on Xinjiang.

JANET: I think when it come to a very sensitive topic about Chinese government image, I start to not trust either side.

FENG: But she's careful not to publish her research online or even have pictures taken of her presenting on the topic in case someone in China sees it and gets her in trouble.

CHEN: Because you're always concerned what would happen to your family.

FENG: That's Chen, another student here. He shares this concern about safety, so that's why he agreed to speak to NPR only if his voice was distorted. Chen did most of his university studies in Taiwan, an island China claims as its own. He secretly participated in the Sunflower Movement in 2014, student-led protests against a trade pact with Beijing, directly contradicting his government.

CHEN: The government official will have a talk with us before we departure to Thailand, saying that you should not talk with any Taiwanese independence movement. Don't touch political stuff in Taiwan. Just stay at your small place talking with your friends.

FENG: Yet when he's in the U.S., people assume he's a spokesman for China.

CHEN: So what government said is what we thought. It's not that way. People have different ideas.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

FENG: Chen spends most of his time alone watching TV shows, like this news program out of Taiwan, or chatting with friends back in China.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

FENG: He's not sure he can return to China and do his research on migration without being detained.

CHEN: Until now, I think I still need to wait and hope what will happen in China.

FENG: What is your hope for China?

CHEN: Much more open - yeah - much more tolerant place.

FENG: But it's painful to stay away, as we heard from Martha, the student we met in the lab.

MARTHA: I will say a hometown means a hometown because of our family. My entire family is still in mainland China. So I might become a global citizen later but definitely not now.

FENG: So Martha - like Chen, like Janet - remains in limbo, between the U.S. and China but never totally belonging in either. Emily Feng, NPR News.


Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.