Securing Its Future or Shooting Itself in the Foot? China’s Strict Censorship and Its Returning Students

Beijing,'s current skyline, juxtaposed with its proposed future skyline. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong) by Niki Deininger '15

Over the last few weeks—on the Internet, in college classrooms, and in business offices—Chinese citizens are sighing in frustration at what many believe to be the Communist Party’s toughest censorship regulations in decades. Taken out of context, the government’s clampdown might not seem out of place. Yet, considering General Secretary of the Communist Part of China Xi Jinping’s continued efforts to snuff out Party corruption, including last month’s ousting of former provincial party leader Su Rong, tighter censorship reveals a heightened sense of state instability. While the country’s economy and private sector may continue to grow miraculously, the substantial increase of state limitations on foreign-educated citizens may ultimately shoot the Communist Party in the foot.

For several weeks now, stricter controls on Internet use, academic curriculum, and business applications all seem to be a result of the Party’s fear of outside influences threatening the legitimacy of the Chinese government. Amid state investigations to root out corruption--an endeavor that has already implicated thousands of government officials, including 70 high-ranking party members--Xi Jinping is seeking to maintain stability by tightening the leash on censorship. And the number of restrictions is still growing. In addition to expelling all Google services last year, as of last month, bloggers and chat-room visitors are required to register their full names on websites, as well as provide written affirmation that they will not challenge the political system. In the weeks to come, new regulations may require foreign companies to hand over intellectual property and products under the guise of “security checks.”

While some Western observers may shake their heads at this turn of events, many others are more struck by China’s nontraditional model of development and growth. China’s support and effort to fuel economic activity, Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption, the country’s greater availability of educational opportunities abroad, the government’s encouragement for innovative ideas and technology, and China’s growing middle class all seem to suggest that democracy is somewhere in their attainable future. Classic modernization theory in particular asserts that a prominent middle class will lead to democracy. However, the government’s recent crackdown on censorship quells hopes of a China that can embrace civil liberties, such as free speech, in years to come. China’s model of development differs from that of more liberal democratic countries. The government’s desire to remain firmly in control is troublesome and clashes with the country’s rapid economic growth in the private sector and its increasing number of foreign-educated middle class citizens.

In addition to China’s astounding economic growth over the years, the United States’ desire to accept international students into U.S. colleges and universities, combined with China’s surplus of knowledge-seeking students has created a profitable market for an American education. While Chinese students have continuously represented the largest number of international students studying in America, the rate of Chinese student enrollment is still on the rise. In 2014, Chinese student enrollment surged 17 percent from the previous year, reaching a total of 274,439 students, about 31 percent of all international students studying in America. Yet unlike in past years, more American-educated Chinese graduates are returning home for employment. According to the Ministry of Education, in 2011, 187,300 Chinese graduates returned home after completing their studies. However, a year later, that number skyrocketed to 272,900 graduates. Part of the explanation for this drastic increase lies in how difficult it is for Chinese citizens to obtain a U.S. work visa. These figures also highlight China’s tremendous economic growth, its expanding private sector, and the opportunities for skilled jobs that come with economic growth.

With more and more American-educated Chinese graduates returning home to join China’s blossoming private sector, its bilingual, bicultural workforce has the potential to pump new ideas and innovations into China and spur further economic development. While this is good news for the Communist Party’s hopes of maintaining sustained economic growth, the consequences of encouraging students to return home with foreign Western ideas could pose a real, tangible threat to China’s attempts to stifle political dissent. The Chinese government refuses to let in information it deems threatening to the nation, and yet it wants to encourage innovation in the private sector from its foreign-educated citizens. China cannot have both, or else it will set itself on a collision course with democracy.

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