U.S. University Campuses Have Become Domestic—and Global—Battlegrounds

U.S. University Campuses Have Become Domestic—and Global—Battlegrounds
Pro-Palestinian protesters face off with police as the student encampment at the University of Chicago is dismantled, Chicago, May 7, 2024 (AP photo by Charles Rex Arbogast).

Nearly 300,000 Chinese students come to the U.S. for their higher education each year. More than half of them now pursue undergraduate degrees, a huge increase over the past two decades, but graduate students from China continue to make up a large portion of students in key STEM fields.

Many come for a superior education and better job opportunities. According to the National Science Foundation, for instance, 87 percent of Chinese doctoral students aim to stay in the U.S. to pursue their careers. But as repression in China has escalated and political space on university campuses and in civil society has shrunk dramatically under President Xi Jinping, Chinese students also pursue degrees in the U.S. to take advantage of a more open political atmosphere, leaving censorship, pervasive surveillance and classroom minders behind.

For this reason, observing the campus crackdowns against pro-Palestine protests in recent weeks, many Chinese students have been struck by the heavy police presence on university campuses and appalled by the use of violence in some instances to clear encampments and remove protesters. In expressing his surprise, one student here at the University of Michigan noted that it is unusual to see police on university campuses in China. Even during the suppression of the country’s pro-democracy movement in 1989, for instance, some Chinese university administrators valiantly blocked the police and military from conducting searches on their campuses.

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