Racism Makes Chinese Students in U.S. More Likely to Support Beijing: Study

Researchers have reported that discrimination against Chinese students in the U.S. may be making them more supportive of the nationalism and authoritarian rule practiced by the regime in Beijing.

The study—"How Discrimination Increases Chinese Overseas Students' Support for Authoritarian Rule"—was published Monday by the Social Science Research Network.

Stanford University researchers Yingjie Fan, Jennifer Pan, and Yiqing Xu collaborated with researcher Zijie Shao at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. The project involved more than 300 first-year Chinese students at 62 U.S. colleges.

The researchers asked participants in treatment group A to read a Western media article about the death of Dr. Li Wenliang—a Chinese doctor in Wuhan who first tried to raise the alarm about the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak but was silenced by local police. Li contracted COVID-19 while working at Wuhan Central Hospital and died in February.

These participants were then asked to read racist, Sinophobic comments from U.S. commentators and their reactions recorded.

Treatment group B read a Western article about Li followed by non-racist commentary critical of China. The control group read an article from a Chinese media outlet followed by comments by Chinese commentators critical of the Chinese government.

Researchers found that students in group A were more likely to support China's authoritarian system after being exposed to the racist anti-Chinese comments. These students generally reported a higher level of trust in the Chinese regime and were less keen on domestic political reform.

Pan noted this was the case despite the fact that "Chinese students who study in the US are more predisposed to favor liberal democracy and less nationalistic than their peers in China."

Pan explained to Newsweek that the finding was "very surprising." She said her team identified two possible reasons for the result. "First, Chinese nationalism and support for the Chinese regime are highly correlated," she said.

"This means people who hold strongly nationalistic views already have very positive views of China's political system. Therefore, it may be more difficult to change their minds (make them more positive)."

"Second, racist comments may convey information that is new to respondents who are less nationalistic," Pan said. "Respondents who are nationalistic may already view the West as an enemy that wants to denigrate and control China and thus exposure to racist commentary is not as surprising or unexpected as for those who are less nationalistic."

The other groups exposed to comments critical of the Chinese government that did not include racist material did not show the same pro-Beijing shift in attitude. Pan said this result was also "striking."

The authors said their results are unlikely to be explained by the perceived success of the U.S. and China in handling their respective COVID-19 outbreaks.

The Chinese government quickly stemmed its own spread—but has been widely accused of underplaying the numbers of infections and deaths—while President Donald Trump's administration has struggled through a confused, partisan and piecemeal response, hamstrung by the president's own dangerous scientific advice and aversion to testing.

Chinese students in this research group were more positive about the Chinese response to the crisis than America's, Pan told Newsweek.

"Despite this, however, experiencing discrimination does not make students in our study more likely to criticize the U.S. government or its handling of COVID-19. It only makes them less likely to criticize the Chinese government and more supportive of the Chinese regime."

"Theoretically, these results provide evidence that discrimination interferes with the transfer of democratic values." the authors write.

"Policy-wise, our findings suggest the rise of anti-Chinese discrimination under the Trump administration may further strengthen the rule of the Chinese Communist Party by boosting support for is rule among a new generation of Chinese students who were the most likely to subscribe to democratic values."

The president and his officials have spread conspiracy theories unsupported by any publicly available evidence, reportedly pressured intelligence officials to give credence to such theories, and repeatedly termed the strain the "China Virus," "Wuhan Virus" or "Kung Flu," all of which place blame on China for the outbreak and have racist connotations.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the World Health Organization have both warned that attempts to blame China for the pandemic could result in dangerous scapegoating of people of Asian descent, which could result in discrimination and violence.

The president also backed a ban on Chinese graduate students with ties to the Chinese military from studying at U.S. institutions. The new rule came into force earlier this month despite concerns that it would hinder American research programs and undermine the finances of U.S. institutions.

China hawks in Washington have also pushed for a ban on any Chinese students hoping to study anything other than STEM—Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—subjects at U.S. universities.

Trump seems unlikely to change course on China despite the criticism. Faced with discouraging polling, a crisis-stricken economy, various allegations of corruption and criminality, plus his administration's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the president is set to make China a focus of his re-election campaign.

At a recent rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—held despite rising coronavirus case numbers in Oklahoma—Trump termed COVID-19 the "Kung Flu" to cheers and applause from supporters in the partially-empty arena.

China, US, students, coronavirus, racism, support, Beijing
This file photo shows graduating Harvard University students during commencement in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 29, 2014. Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images/Getty