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What Turning Off WeChat Means

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When the White House announced a new executive order Thursday, for once it had nothing to do with student visas.

But the new proclamation, which would restrict the Chinese-owned social-media apps TikTok and WeChat, could have an enormous impact on Chinese students studying in the United States.

To call WeChat just another app minimizes its centrality to Chinese life. People use it to talk, to shop, to share photos and videos, to get news, to pay their bills. It’s almost impossible to get by in China without WeChat. Not only is it increasingly an important recruitment tool for American colleges, if you have Chinese students on your campus, it’s often a more-reliable way to reach them here.

For students abroad, WeChat is an essential connection to friends and family back home, especially now that coronavirus-related travel restrictions means that it may be many months before they can return to China. Frankie Huang, a Chinese-born writer based in the U.S., wrote about what a possible WeChat ban could mean for the Chinese diaspora:

At a time when international travel is nigh impossible, our digital bonds become all the more precious and vulnerable. For many Wechat users in the U.S., it is the only thing that links them with loved ones they may not have seen for months, and may not know when they can finally reunite with. It is an extraordinary cruelty to sever these links at a time when we must lean on these technologies that span the distance we physically cannot travel.

In issuing the executive order, the Trump administration cited national-security concerns, and those shouldn’t be dismissed. The Chinese government does censor and surveil WeChat; it uses the app to impose social controls at home and to spread propaganda overseas.

At the same time, if the U.S. limits WeChat — at this point, it’s unclear what form restrictions could take — it could untether students from their support system at home. At a time when student morale is at a low ebb, that could be a lifeline that higher ed and students alike could ill-afford to lose.

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‘This Deepens the Downward Spiral’

Glenn Shive spent his career working on academic and cultural exchanges, much of it administering the Fulbright program in Hong Kong and China. We met, in fact, when I was writing about a Fulbright program that brought American professors to Hong Kong to help universities there adopt liberal education. Now retired, he shared with me some thoughts about President Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel the Fulbright program to Hong Kong and mainland China. His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.

President Trump cancelled the Fulbright program with China and Hong Kong as part of his executive order of tit-for-tat designed to punish China for imposing a new security law in HK. This deepens the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations and further politicizes people-to-people exchange programs that have served American public diplomacy with China over four decades. It sends a message that Trump’s America does not believe in dialogue with Chinese people.

Fulbright China began in 1980 with normalization of relations after three decades of the Cold War and the end of Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. The U.S. took the lead, but China has also invested its resources in building these exchanges on a mostly reciprocal basis. What purpose is achieved by putting Fulbright exchanges on an expanding bonfire of our assets for dealing with China in the future? Will Xi Jinping mourn the loss of America’s tools for understanding China when he wants anyway to reduce the influence America has on the young people of his country?

Fulbright and other exchange programs have demonstrated to young Chinese academics and professionals the values of academic freedom and open inquiry. Reciprocally, they have given thousands of young Americans the chance to see China for themselves and tell America’s story through their own lives as teachers, students, and just people who make lifelong friends with their peers. Top Chinese universities have hosted well over a thousand of our best academics to teach their students and confer with their professors. In Hong Kong, the government, its eight public universities, and wealthy private donors who have cherished their education in America have funded over three quarters of the Fulbright program in their city.

This is the program that Trump has abruptly and unilaterally cancelled. It fits the mainland narrative that America is to blame for the disaffection of HK young people from China as ruled by the CCP. Trump’s action plays into their hands and leaves us with less leverage for the future. But mostly, it is the Hong Kong people who will suffer from our withdrawal from engagement.

Trump has just taken a vandal’s cudgel to the American programs that are designed to keep the doors open between our two societies. It has taken over 40 years to build these programs between the U.S. and China, and less than 40 minutes to kill them in the Rose Garden. Congress can still block this hack job by inserting language into the appropriations for the State Department that prevents closing Fulbright programs without review and consent from the Hill. Our future capacity to understand and deal with China is at stake.

How the U.S. Sees International Students

One to World, a group that promotes academic exchange, released the results of new polling on Americans’ attitudes toward international students, and, like the Facebook dress from a few years back, how they are perceived is in the eyes of the beholder.

In the July surveyhalf of all Americans said that international students benefit the U.S., and just 10 percent disagreed. Women view international students more favorably than men. Support is greater among young Americans than those who are older and in the West than the South.

On Twitter, response to the poll was split between people heartened that 50 percent of Americans recognize the contributions of international students…

…and those face-palming because half the country doesn’t see the value international students bring.

My take: One in four Americans are uncertain if international students are a benefit, suggesting there is space for more advocacy and education by higher education. Whether that represents a challenge or an opportunity — well, that depends on your perspective.

Around the Globe

The State Department and the CDC lifted a blanket advisory warning U.S. citizens against all international travelbecause of the coronavirus.

Congressional Republicans have written to half-dozen universities, including Harvard and Yale, asking for information about overseas gifts and contracts.

Two dozen colleges have been awarded State Department grants to start, expand, or diversify study-abroad programming.

Texas Tech fired its women’s basketball coach amid allegations that she created a toxic environment, including singling out international players for abuse and mocking their English skills.

Canadian border agents turned away an Alaska student and her mother who were attempting to drive to her college in Colorado. The U.S.-Canada border has been closed to nonessential travel since March.

More than 2,500 students, professors, and alumni at the University of Hong Kong signed a petition protesting the dismissal of Benny Tai, a legal scholar and pro-democracy activist.

The head of IDP Education, the international-education services company, was Australia’s highest-paid CEO.

poll of British academics found that both conservative and liberal professors would discriminate against their political opposites.

Read about the Chinese academics who give an intellectual defense of Xi Jinping’s agenda.

And finally…

“Who are these people?” one international-office head asked me the other day. We were talking about the stories featuring folks with so much time on their hands they’ve taken up serious breadbaking, joined multiple bookclubs, and watched their entire Netflix queue.

That was not the experience of my source, who was juggling the demands of changing visa policy, of standing up overseas sites for students who couldn’t come to the U.S. and figuring out quarantine procedures for those who could, plus family obligations at home. Turns out, it’s not the experience of most Americans, either: A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the average workday lengthened by 48.5 minutes in the weeks following stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, and the number of meetings increased by 13 percent. (The study was based on an analysis of anonymous email and calendar data of three million users of an unnamed tech provider.)

But while misery loves company, there’s also something to be said about the benefits of carving out a little time to decompress, if you are able. I just finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, and I’m almost done watching Billions. Have recommendations for books, movies, TV, recipes? Send them my way at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

’Til next week — Karin

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