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International students in China have become the latest target in Beijing’s campaign to ensure thought control and political stability. The party-state’s obsession with “ideological security” clashes with its efforts to promote people-to-people exchanges as a key part of China’s global outreach.

An international student in China takes a calligraphy class.

International students in China are coming under the party-state’s oversight for the first time. According to new regulations issued by the ministries of education, foreign affairs and public security, Chinese universities will be required to assign “tutors” to foreign students to provide help with their “studies and life.” The regulations also introduce compulsory classes for international students on Chinese laws and institutions as well as culture and customs.

The “Measures on schools recruiting and educating international students” (学校招收和培养国际学生管理办法) will come into effect on July 1. Similar regulations have been in place for students from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao since 1999.     

Providing guidance (and education) for exchange students can be a helpful service. But these new regulations have to be seen in the context of the CCP’s recent reinforcement of ideological control throughout the education system. The tasks of the “tutors” (辅导员) are highly likely to include reporting on potentially “harmful” ideas and activities. This would discourage an open exchange of ideas between international students, especially those from liberal democracies, and their Chinese classmates.

Ideological control is at odds with global exchanges

The tighter control over international exchange students is strangely at odds with China’s leaders recent attempts to present their country as a champion of globalization. Beijing has made increasing efforts to promote people-to-people exchanges, from youth exchanges to school partnerships. The concept of “people-to-people connections” is even part of Beijing’s ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative to build an infrastructure and information corridor across Eurasia.

But while Beijing allows more exchange with the rest of the world, it also steps up its efforts to control the information flow. In addition to aiming to protect its own population from foreign – and especially “Western” – influences, Beijing’s new approach is to actively shape the debate in China and beyond, and to present a Chinese alternative to the dominating “Western” narrative. But how attractive can this alternative narrative be if its proponents are not self-confident enough to let it compete against conflicting ideas and opinions – as in discussions Chinese students might have with their foreign classmates?

The measures relating to international students are in line with Beijing’s domestic ideological tightening. The campaign started in 2013 with the CCP’s “Document 9,” which rejected concepts of liberal democracies such as freedom of the press or constitutionalism as “false ideological trends.”  The education sector has been in the focus of attempts to discredit “Western” liberal ideas. In 2015, the then-minister of education called for a controversial ban on textbooks that promote ideas of liberal democracies and warned against the “infiltration of enemy forces.” In April 2017, the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection set out to investigate violations against “political discipline” (including “infiltration of Western values”) at universities.

Regulations sow distrust between Chinese and foreigners

The Chinese government has also stepped up its efforts to oversee the ideological education of Chinese students abroad. From Beijing’s point of view, the extension of these efforts to international students in China is the logical next step towards a systematic supervision and control of interaction between Chinese and foreigners.

So rather than promoting cross-cultural exchanges, China’s recent political tightening discourages them by sowing distrust. Throughout the past year, Chinese authorities have warned the population of potential “foreign spies” and offered rewards for exposing espionage. In May, China published a draft intelligence law, which would give wide-ranging powers to its security authorities to monitor, investigate and arrest individuals and groups suspected of endangering China’s national security.

All of these measures create new obstacles for personal relations between Chinese and foreigners, which had become much more relaxed over the past decades. After a complete ban of contacts between Chinese and foreigners was lifted in the 1980s, foreign students still had to live in separate dormitories (with limited access for Chinese) in the 1990s, before Chinese and foreign students started sharing apartments off campus in the more recent past.

Over the years of China’s opening to the world, many close friendships – and even marriages – were formed. This could be seen as a cross-cultural success story, but it hollows out the Chinese leadership’s narrative that Chinese and Western lifestyles and values are incompatible. Apart from spreading concepts of individual freedoms and civil society, these cross-cultural contacts have had another “harmful” influence in the eyes of Chinese leaders: many Chinese Christians name contact with foreign students as the most important reason for their conversion. Religious activities and attempts to proselytize on campus have now been outlawed in the new stipulations.

It is becoming obvious that the kind of people-to-people exchanges that Beijing envisions are much more narrowly defined than the free and open interactions between Chinese and foreigners over the past decades. But in today’s China, even personal relationships are once again subjected to the CCP’s top-down Control.