For America's next generation of China experts, the challenges go beyond language and country access

·8 min read

As an Ivy-league graduate in China studies, 22-year-old Patrick Beyrer ticks all the right boxes to launch a career focused on the country - language skills, prior experience on the mainland, and above all, zeal.

Finding someone like Beyrer is no small feat. Fewer foreigners these days want to pursue China studies, despite expertise in the country arguably more needed than ever. But Beyrer faces a more prosaic challenge: he cannot enter China.

"It has become a challenge to understand China without the prism of face-to-face interactions," said Beyrer, an American who visited the country in 2016 and 2019, each time for weeks-long programmes through the US State Department.

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Having studied Mandarin in the US since middle school, Beyrer was looking to deepen his expertise in China studies through a master's programme he enrolled in last year at a top university in Beijing.

Patrick Beyrer, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, last visited China in 2019 for language studies. He hopes to re-enter the country as part of a master's programme. Photo: Patrick Beyrer alt=Patrick Beyrer, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, last visited China in 2019 for language studies. He hopes to re-enter the country as part of a master's programme. Photo: Patrick Beyrer>

However, just months away from the start of a new academic year, Beyrer has low expectations that he will be allowed in. China has yet to announce whether it will resume visa approvals for international students since suspending standard processing three years ago due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think if China doesn't open soon, there is a huge risk that there's going to be ... five or maybe even 10 years of young Americans who'd just develop a really negative opinion of China," Beyrer said. "This is not good."

Only 2,481 American citizens went to China for studies in the 2019-2020 academic year, according to data released in October by the US-based Institute for International Education. This represented a 78.7 per cent drop from the previous year, marking a 10-year low.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a South China Morning Post inquiry about the number of student visas issued to US citizens since the coronavirus pandemic began.

While China's strict border policies during the pandemic have affected nearly all foreigners trying to enter the country, Americans have been especially hit hard as relations between Washington and Beijing remain tense.

The number of students from the US who studied in China ranged between 11,613 and 14,887 over the previous 10 academic years, according to the IIE.

Opportunities for Americans to develop expansive, in-depth experience by studying, working or living in China have helped seed the presence of "China hands" in the US government, private sector and academia. Some question whether such a cadre is or should be as influential as in years past, particularly following the administration of Donald Trump when many experts were considered too accommodating of Beijing. Yet Beijing's academics still consider US President Joe Biden's team of advisers on China to have a strong understanding of the country.

Regardless of their political bent, US policymakers across disciplines regard China as America's "most serious competitor" in the 21st century. Accordingly, the Biden administration has made clear it believes the ranks of China-focused experts in diplomacy, military and intelligence matters must grow.

However, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Programme at the German Marshall Fund, said Beijing's current limited intake of international students could take a toll on how China analysts in the US are shaped.

"The lack of first-hand experience may lead to a diminished ability to understand and interpret China and its policies," Glaser said.

Other long-time China watchers have noted that Beijing's political clampdown, fewer job opportunities on the mainland and less leeway to enter as well as move about the country due to Covid-19 have all placed a strain on budding experts. But the situation affects young Americans especially because they have yet to build their networks and experience in China as their predecessors did.

Victor Shih, a China scholar at the University of California San Diego, said reduced economic opportunities, combined with China's zero-Covid approach, have put foreigners off China who might otherwise be interested in the country.

"China was [once] seen as a kind of land of opportunity for young foreigners. That is no longer the case," said Shih, who regularly visited the mainland for decades until the pandemic. He described the "golden period" for aspiring China experts as spanning the 1990s to 2017-2018 when foreign nationals with "some Chinese skills" and China knowledge had ample job opportunities in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China.

Shih echoed the view that Beijing's restrictive entry policies during the pandemic have made China a less attractive place to be. Indeed, a three-month mass lockdown in Shanghai from April 1 to June 1 prompted many foreigners to flee the commercial hub.

But Mary Gallagher, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, believes Beijing's firmer hand in recent years has contributed more to plummeting interest in China studies than pandemic limitations.

"We are starting to see students make a choice," explained Gallagher, saying students think "maybe I will not be a China scholar because I just can't take risks right now". She said students reason that either China won't "open up in the next couple of years" or that their topic of interest "is too politically sensitive", leading them to conclude they need to pursue another field. It is "very risky for students to focus solely on China right now", she added.

As a result, academics are now more likely to rely heavily on open data and the internet to conduct research on China, Gallagher said. This scenario presents additional concerns, as government data is not completely "reliable or representative" and a scarcity of qualitative survey opportunities hinders insight, she said.

Deborah Seligsohn of Villanova University, who served as a science counsellor at the US embassy in Beijing from 2003 to 2007, said Washington also shared some of the blame. Seligsohn said that as security clearances were harder to come by during the Trump administration more people working in China research became more careful about how their ties to the country might be perceived.

For the State Department to enhance China expertise, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken should think about "hiring standards and making sure that security is not simply operating on assumptions but is actually doing the real work of determining what's a risk and what's not", Seligsohn said.

Public attention has increasingly turned to how China might be endangering US national security, illustrated by the Justice Department's recently ended China Initiative meant to crack down on leaks of technological and other sensitive information for Beijing's benefit. Under the Trump-era programme, some prominent American professors faced charges for misreporting or covering up connections to Chinese funds.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, Isaac Stone Fish, founder of the China-focused research firm Strategy Risks, said he observed younger Americans having very different experiences with China compared to previous generations who knew a relatively open country in the 2000s and early 2010s.

Stone Fish, a former journalist who was based in China for seven years, described the older generation of experts who lived in the country as having "built relationships with people outside [Chinese Communist Party-] controlled channels of people-to-people exchanges".

"Many in the next generation of young American experts are more sceptical of the Chinese Communist Party, of engagement, and of friends of China, like Henry Kissinger," he said.

Beyrer, the China expert-in-waiting, espouses this perspective. The University of Pennsylvania graduate said he did not think first-hand living experience in China was a prerequisite to claiming expertise in the country if one's language skills were strong.

Still, Beyrer acknowledged that how he views China shifts when he is based in the US.

"In China, you really have the opportunity to meet people, learn about their daily lives and the way politics and the government influence an average person," Beyrer said. "In the US, things are a little more politics- and international relations-centric."

Beyrer noted he would keep waiting to enter the mainland, despite many in his academic programme leaving China studies altogether. In the meantime, he bides his time working as a China analyst at a strategy and business advisory firm in Washington.

"When I'm in the United States, my attention turns more towards sensitive and complicated topics," he said. "In China, there's more of an opportunity to focus on cooperation and development when you're learning."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.