Chinese exports may fluctuate with the global economy, but there's one international good that's sitting pretty in terms of both supply and demand: Chinese students. In the last five years, as the United States struggled with the after-effects of the financial crisis, the number of Chinese students studying in the country skyrocketed, nearly doubling from 2008 to 2012. Yet in spite of garnering much media attention, their presence abroad is not unprecedented. The nearly 200,000 students now in the United States are, in fact, heir to a national tradition; many of the People's Republic of China's revolutionary leaders found their footing as foreign students nearly a century ago. Zhou Enlai, who served as Premier under Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping, the father of China's economic reforms, both became members of the Communist Party of China while residing in France in the 1920's. The fledgling Communist Party of China, established in Shanghai in 1921, did much of its early recruiting among idealistic overseas students, many of whom identified with Deng Xiaoping's stated mission for traveling to France: "To learn knowledge and truth from the West in order to save China."
The revolutionary pedigree of these former foreign students have inspired hope among Chinese democracy advocates that the 21st century outflow of students will result in a major inflow of liberal ideals, ones that may challenge Communist Party control. New Tang Dynasty, an adamantly anti-Communist Party television station operating out of the United States, has promoted a vision of returnees promoting reform, calling them the seeds from which democracy in China will sprout.
"[The Party] wants advanced science and technology from the West, and yet they don't want the thoughts that would threaten the CCP's ideology," opposition leader Liu Yinchuan told the station. "China's returnees will make democracy evolve."
The idea of democratization by osmosis may excite democracy advocates, but interviews with this generation of returnees reveal a different set of priorities: While many in the first wave of Chinese students went abroad in order to save their country, those in the current wave of students are leaving China in order to save themselves. Like their predecessors, modern-day returnees from American colleges often describe finding freedom on foreign shores, but it's a freedom that's decidedly more personal than political.
Xu Yawen grew up in Xi'an, where both her parents and her grandfather worked in the local finance bureau. She had long harbored a dream of studying abroad, and finally got her chance through a program that took students from Xi'an International Studies University and enrolled them for two years at Humboldt State University in northern California.
Xu's parents wanted her to study finance, through which their government connections could smooth the way for a stable career. Xu, however, had other ideas. After enrolling at Humboldt State, she became the first mainland Chinese student to pursue a degree in journalism, joining The Lumberjack, the university's student paper. There, Xu wrote profiles of local homeless people and investigated the way California state schools allocated money for international students.
Her work gave her the kind of direct contact with American democracy that most Chinese students never achieve, but when asked what stuck out to her about the experience, Xu's response was more personal.
"Freedom," Xu said. "Freedom on a spiritual level. After I moved to America I could go wherever I wanted to go: hiking, backpacking, partying, traveling. There, your life isn't about your parents. There are no rules, just friends. You learn a lot of things, meet a lot of people, hear different stories. You start thinking about life, about options."
Nian Xixi was raised by a father who taught Kafka and Goethe and a mother who worked at Xi'an International Studies University, giving her an international background that set her apart from other Chinese students at the school. While many of her classmates were holed up in their rooms, Nian spent much of her time traveling around China and partying. But by her junior year of college Nian was desperate to leave the hometown where she'd spent all of her life.
"I love this place, but I felt trapped," Nian said. "I couldn't wait to get out of China, especially from my school. I just wanted to experience a whole different life. I didn't care if it was America or Africa. I was prepared for anything."
In the end, it was an exchange program with the University of Oklahoma that offered Nian a ticket out. There, she finally found groups of friends that matched her interests.
"When I was partying back home, we were the only people who went out to clubs, but in Oklahoma most people would do it," Nian said. "I think a lot of Chinese students are curious about trying different things but they're so timid because they care too much about how people would judge them."