Chinese Journal Review: Does Racism in the U.S. Help Xi?

New research indicates that exposure to racism in the U.S. increases Chinese students' support for autocracy.

Normally I use this newsletter to summarize Chinese-language academic publications to make Chinese-language research on foreign policy, the economy, technology, international development, and social issues more accessible to Western readers. 

Today, however, while doing research for this newsletter, I stumbled upon this English-language paper from Stanford University and Communication University of China academics, who looked into the effects of exposure of racism on Chinese students’ views towards their own leaders and political system.

The researchers found that when Chinese students read racist, anti-China commentary on online U.S. platforms, this increased the likelihood that those students would support autocracy back home. The results were especially pronounced among students who were initially predisposed not to support autocracy: this group had the biggest swing in favor of autocracy of all groups surveyed.

When I was a U.S. diplomat, I worked a lot with EducationUSA, a State Department-funded network that encourages foreign students to pursue a higher education in the United States. This is big business: in the 2018/2019 academic year, foreign students in the United States created more than $44 billion in exports for the U.S. economy, which supported more than 450,000 jobs. China has long been the number one producer of foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities.

In addition to being good for the U.S. economy, the assumption has also been that increasing the numbers of foreign students in the United States had other positive externalities, too: many foreign students will return home to become their countries’ next political, business, media, and cultural leaders. Their building networks with other Americans and holding favorable views of the United States helps promote trade, human rights and democracy, and peace.

This research pokes holes in that assumption. During the global Covid-19 pandemic, President Trump, the White House, parts of the media, and various Republican officials have made repeated references to the “China virus.” Xenophobia overall is on the rise. Chinese students studying in the United States are more likely to be exposed to anti-China, xenophobic views than those studying in China. 

Based on this research, you have to wonder how many of these students will return to China with a more negative view of the United States than before, as well as how much this benefits Xi as he attempts to consolidate power.

The research also found that legitimate criticisms against China’s government, especially its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, did not increase or decrease students’ support for the regime. Legitimate criticisms are fair game, but xenophobia helps Xi, it seems.

I’ve included the summary of the paper below. 


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Title: How Discrimination Increases Chinese Overseas Students’ Support for Authoritarian Rule
Authors: Yingjie Fan; Jennifer Pan; Zijie Shao; Yiqing Xu (all at Stanford University)
Date: Submitted to SSRN in June 2020, updated August 2020

In a paper written in June and updated this month, Stanford University researchers found that exposure to racist comments on U.S. media platforms resulted in a higher likelihood that Chinese students would increase their support for autocracy, trust Chinese leaders more, and oppose political reforms.

The researchers surveyed 377 first-year Chinese students studying at one of 66 U.S. institutions and 615 first-year students studying at three top-tier Chinese universities. They broke the U.S. and Chinese samples into three sub-groups: 

  • a Control group, which was exposed to Chinese media reports of Dr. Li Wenliang’s death and Chinese-language commentary from a Chinese online platform that was critical of the Chinese government’s handling of Covid-19;

  • a Treatment A group, which was exposed to a Chinese media report of Dr. Li Wenliang’s death and commentary critical of the Chinese government’s handling of Covid-19 on a U.S. online platform (translated into Chinese), and;

  • A Treatment B group, which was exposed to a Chinese media report of Dr. Li Wenliang’s death, commentary critical of the Chinese government’s handling of Covid-19 on a U.S. online platform, and additional commentary that included racist remarks about Chinese people on a U.S. online platform (translated into Chinese). 

Dr. Li Wenliang was the first Chinese doctor to sound the alarm about Covid-19. His death from the virus sparked national outrage at Chinese officials for their handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, including for police questioning Dr. Li for “spreading rumors” about the virus.

Respondents took surveys pre- and post-exposure to the media articles and online commentary to measure the effects of racism on their support for the Chinese government, trust in Chinese leaders, and support for one-party rule and political reforms.

The researchers measured support for autocracy by asking respondents to indicate how much they agreed with a series of statements such as, “Although the political system of our country has flaws, it is the most suitable to China’s current situation” or “It now seems that our country’s political system is not inferior to those of Western developed countries.” 

The researchers found the following:

  • When Chinese students read non-racist U.S. commentary that criticized the Chinese government, this did not change respondents’ support levels for the Chinese government positively or negatively;

  • However, when Chinese students were exposure to racist commentary on U.S. platforms, this increased respondents’ support for China’s current political system, made them less likely to endorse political reforms, and more likely to express trust for Chinese leaders, especially central level leadership;

  • Students who initially reported that they were less nationalistic were the students most likely to be influenced by exposure to racist comments. The paper’s authors speculate that Chinese nationalists were more likely to already view the United States as an adversarial power, so exposure to racism in the United States only validated their views. For students who were less nationalistic, exposure to racist commentary exposed them to “new” information about the United States, which had a bigger effect.

  • Chinese studying in the United States were more likely to oppose China’s political system than their peers studying in China. Among respondents in the U.S. sample, there was a sizable contingent that was “strongly against nationalistic policies and who do not support China’s current political system when compared with other students [studying in China]”;

  • 89 percent of respondents said the United States handled the Covid-19 pandemic “badly” or “very badly” while the same percentage thought China handled the pandemic “well” or “very well.” More than 50 percent of respondents thought Japan handled the pandemic “well” or “very well” and more than 60 percent of respondents thought Korea handled the pandemic “well” or “very well.”