Lost in Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on Chinese International Student Mobility in the US

Research Highlighted:

Yu, J. (2021). Lost in lockdown? The impact of COVID-19 on Chinese international student mobility in the USJournal of International Students11(S2). https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v11iS2.3575

Jing Yu, University of California Santa Barbara, USA

This article is a part of a broader critical qualitative research project investigating Chinese international students’ decision-making, agency, and racial learning during the COVID-19 crisis. International student mobility has received substantial attention in the past two decades (Altbach & Knight, 2007; Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumbley, 2009). Due to the uneven and hierarchical global context, the United States has been the world’s number one “Educational Hub” (Knight, 2011), leading the internationalization of higher education in multiple forms, the top priority of which lies in international student recruitment and enrollment. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has thoroughly disrupted the traditional mobility experience—a situation that has broader implications for the demographic landscape of US higher education. Therefore, it is urgent to explore what factors and experiences affect Chinese students’ decision-making and how these factors potentially shape the flows that transform the demographic landscape of US higher education.

The social imaginary (e.g., Taylor, 2004; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010) exerts a significant impact on the unipolar model of the US as the most popular educational destination in the international arena. Related to ideology, the concept of the social imaginary is tied to power and dominance, representing “a common way of thinking that is shared by a group of people and guides everyday practice” (Kubota, 2016, p. 348). The United States, a nation that offers “world-class” higher education, attracts the highest proportion of international students, and dominates the international higher education market. However, the year 2020 seems to have shaken the traditional social imaginary—fetishism of American higher education in spite of its deep ideological embeddedness in people’s shared thinking. Combined with the pandemic, US-China rivalry and anti-Asian racism also significantly impact the trends of Chinese student mobility.

To capture the complexity of students’ views on their overseas decisions, I adopted one-on-one in-depth online interviews as the primary method for data collection. I specifically focused on full fee-paying Chinese undergraduate students’ perspectives on their future educational decision-making, with an aim to explore the impact of COVID-19 on Chinese ISM. This study is guided by two research questions: 1) How have COVID-19 and pandemic-related Sinophobia affected Chinese undergraduates’ perspectives on study-abroad decisions in the US? 2) What destinations will these students consider when pursuing graduate study abroad? Altogether, I recruited 21 undergraduates enrolled at a US research university in the University of California system. Based on my qualitative data analysis, three major factors that may prevent Chinese students and families from choosing the US as the destination for their graduate study in the post-pandemic world: disillusionment regarding their original romanticized views of the US, psychological stress brought by uncertain US policies, and parental concerns about students’ health and well-being.

For many Chinese students and their parents, the US has always been the most attractive country to earn a well-respected degree, meet a diverse range of people, and enhance career prospects. This perception is unconsciously driven by their social imaginary of US higher education. As Stein and Andreotti (2016) argue, the social imaginary both constructs Western higher education as a desirable product and, at the same time, underlies the racist reception by the host campus and country. Deeply embedded in people’s common understanding, the social imaginary of the US is formed through images, stories, and videos via popular media. However, this idealized image is gradually undermined 1) through Chinese students’ firsthand observations of the US, 2) through Chinese people’s collective skepticism about the market value of US degrees, and 3) through persistent Sinophobia in the US context.

The second factor that influences Chinese students and families in decisions about study abroad is uncertain US-China relations and related unpredictable visa policies. After a series of xenophobic policies targeting Chinese graduate students were implemented, the Chinese undergraduate students I interviewed suffered tremendous psychological stress. Particularly when Trump signed a presidential proclamation on July 6, 2020, requiring all international students on F1 visas whose university curricula were entirely online to leave the country or face deportation. Trump wanted to utilize international students as political leverage for the purpose of threatening US colleges and universities to reopen during the pandemic. In response, Chinese students were extremely frustrated and alarmed. The impact of political unrest and abrupt policy change on students’ mental health concerns is also a factor that influences their future overseas study plans.

Parental concerns are the third factor in study-abroad decision-making and one that is often overlooked by researchers. In fact, parents should be seen as the hidden protagonists who enable and sustain cross-border higher education. It is Chinese parents who communicate with educational brokers to select countries, schools, and majors for their children (Lan, 2018), who financially and emotionally support their children to study abroad in the US (Fong, 2011; Ma, 2020), who facilitate the new model of international student mobility for the educational purposes rather than the earlier immigration model (Zhang-Wu, 2018). The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the role of Chinese parents even more salient and crucial.

Owing to the COVID-19-induced problems discussed above, Chinese international students are becoming increasingly aware of alternative countries and regions to pursue their graduate study. Singapore and Hong Kong were repeatedly mentioned as potential alternative study-abroad destinations due to their effective handling of the virus as well as shared cultural practices. While COVID-19 seems to open up new preferences for destinations in the Asia-Pacific region, Chinese student mobility is still largely facilitated by neoliberal ideology, as evidenced both by my findings and Mok et al.’s study (2021). Hence, it can be argued that COVID-19 has a profound impact on the direction of Chinese international student mobility from the traditional East-to-West mode to the East Asia-oriented mode; however, this disruption has not changed the neoliberal nature of international education. To avoid repeating regional asymmetries and inequalities, lessons need to be learned from internationalization, and early interventions need to be made if additional persuasive evidence confirms this trend of regionalization.

In summary, in this article, I explore ideological, structural, and individual factors that are likely to discourage Chinese undergraduate students from pursuing their graduate study in the US. Ideologically, disillusionment with the US compels Chinese students to be critical of their previous fetishism of US higher education and credentials. Structurally, US-China relations and visa regulations will likely affect students’ preferred destination. Individually, parental views stand out as a critical factor in shaping the future of Chinese international student mobility. Another key finding is that Singapore and Hong Kong are becoming the emerging destination options for Chinese undergraduate students seeking to pursue graduate studies. Finally, this article looks beyond the immediate impact of the pandemic on Chinese student mobility. While it is impossible to predict the future with precision, this study shows that COVID-19 will almost certainly have a long-lasting, negative impact on Chinese international student mobility to US higher education institutions.


Altbach, P. G., & Knight, J. (2007). The internationalization of higher education: Motivations and realities. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11(3–4), 290–305.

Altbach, P. G., Reisberg, L., & Rumbley, L. E. (2009). Trends in global higher education: Tracking an academic revolution. Paris: World Conference on Higher Education.

Fong, V. L. (2011). Paradise redefined: Transnational Chinese students and the quest for flexible citizenship in the developed world. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Knight, J. (2011). Higher education in turmoil. The Netherlands: Brill.

Kubota, R. (2016). The social imaginary of study abroad: Complexities and contradictions. Language Learning Journal, 44(3), 347–357.

Lan, S. (2018). State-mediated brokerage system in China’s self-funded study abroad market. International Migration, 57(3), 266-279.

Ma, Y. (2020). Ambitious and anxious: How Chinese college students succeed and struggle in American higher education. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mok. K. H., Xiong W., Ke, G., & Cheung J. O. W. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on international higher education and student mobility: Students perspectives from mainland China and Hong Kong. International Journal of Education Research, 105, 101718.

Rizvi, F., & Lingard, R. (2010). Globalizing education policy. London: Routledge.

Stein, S., & de Andreotti, V. O. (2016). Cash, competition, or charity: International students and the global imaginary. Higher Education, 72(2), 225–239.

Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Zhang-Wu, Q. (2018). Chinese international students’ experiences in American higher education institutes: A critical review of the literature. Journal of International Students, 8(2), 1173–1197.

Author Bio

JING YU is a PhD candidate in Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at University of California Santa Barbara. She received M.A. in Teaching and Learning from the Ohio State University in 2015. Her research interests focus on international education, multicultural discourses as well as lived experiences of Chinese international students in the context of American higher education. She can be contacted via email: jing02@ucsb.edu and Twitter @yujing6633

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