Geopolitics are hitting Chinese student flows in Asia

There was relief in Taiwan last week as mainland Chinese are once again enrolling in Taiwan’s universities after China curbed student exchanges across the Taiwan Strait due to tense relations between the two sides, but overall the number of Chinese students has halved since last year.

At the same time, South Korea is seeing a major dip in enrolment of Chinese students – by far the largest national group of foreign students in that country – due to Chinese government anger at South Korea’s US-backed missile defence system and as tensions rise on the Korean peninsula.

While Taiwan officials say there are indications that resolving the ‘temporary rupture’ may mean student numbers recover at least to last year’s levels, the effect of geopolitical tensions on student flows is being seen as a downside of reliance on China for international students.

Reports emerged earlier this year that Chinese education authorities had notified students accepted by universities in Taiwan that they should consider carefully whether it was appropriate to study there at a time when the political climate was strained.

According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, some Chinese students whose permits to study in Taiwan had been withheld, have in the past week received approval from the mainland authorities. It was revealed earlier in August that Shanghai authorities were restricting approval on the grounds that National Cheng Kung University in Tainan on the island’s southwest coast was “engaging in pro-Taiwan independence activities”.

Other Taiwan universities were also affected. Chinese students have since obtained permission to attend the Taiwan institutions, including National Chengchi University in Taipei, National Tsing Hua University and National Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu city.

According to a document reportedly issued by China’s Taiwan Affairs office, secondary schools in several provinces had been asked to advise students to reconsider their decision as the cross-strait relationship was “tense, complex and sensitive”.

Chang Huang, executive secretary of the Taiwan universities’ joint committee for recruiting Chinese students, said in July the Chinese authorities had approved only 1,000 students from the mainland to apply to Taiwan institutions this year, down from 2,136 last year.

A total of 9,300 Chinese students are currently studying in Taiwan, compared to around 10,000 Taiwanese in China but education ministry officials have said the balance would likely shift in favour of China if it continues to shrink its quotas to Taiwan because of Beijing’s anger at the government of President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party has espoused independence from China.

Dramatic drop

While the Chinese authorities have not banned Chinese citizens from studying in South Korea, as they appeared to do for a while for Taiwan, South Korea has also seen a dramatic drop in students enrolling from mainland China.

Although full figures have not yet been collated, several universities have reported a slide in applications. Chonbuk National University in Jeonju in South Korea’s North Jeolla province said only 150 students from China were enrolled in its current winter programme, less than a third of the number enrolled in 2016. Woosuk University in the same province saw a similar drop in the number of students from China.

The dip is due to Chinese anger over South Korea’s decision to deploy the United States missile shield system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD in South Korea, close to the North Korean border. The first phase of THAAD, put in place this year, led to Chinese restrictions since mid-March on its citizens’ travel to South Korea, and other unofficial sanctions against Korean manufacturing firms and creative industries.

Around 60,000 Chinese students currently study in South Korea – 60% of all foreign students in that country – and a similar number of South Koreans study in China. The number of Chinese students in South Korea had increased almost tenfold in the past eight years, according to a recent study by Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Netizens in China have criticised Chinese students as ‘unpatriotic’ for studying in South Korea, and Chinese students in Seoul have voiced concerns that their employment chances may be affected once they return to China.

Huang Shasha, 18, a Chinese student at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told China’s Global Times newspaper that even some of her family believed she was wrong to study there.

Perceptions have clearly been affected. Xu Yongbin, dean of foreign language studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, said that for the first time no Chinese students had applied to the university’s Korean department.

“I was shocked that there were no undergraduate applicants to the Korean department this year. We accept up to 20 students [a year] and this is the first time this has happened,” he said in an interview with Hankyoreh, the South Korean newspaper, adding that most of the university’s graduates go on to work in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Commerce, and had good employment prospects with major Korean companies operating in China.

Short-lived ban

In Taiwan’s case, the ban has proved to be short-lived, after extensive approaches by Taiwanese officials to have the bans lifted. Nonetheless, according to reports, students from the mainland have been instructed not to participate in any campus political activities in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s education ministry said it had repeatedly brought up the issue with education authorities on the mainland to stop issuing such notifications to prospective students.

Taiwan officials said the notifications for students to ‘reconsider’ appeared to come from Chinese provincial or city authorities, particularly the coastal provinces of Fujian and Jiangsu, which face the Taiwan Strait, rather than being a blanket order from Beijing.

Taiwan’s Deputy Minister on the Mainland Affairs Council Chiu Chui-cheng said in early August that student exchanges across the Taiwan Strait were helpful “to increase mutual understanding”.


In many Korean universities Chinese students make up over half of the foreign student body, with some universities having an even higher proportion, leading to criticism that Korean universities are over-reliant on China for foreign students, amid demographic decline in Korea.

Kyung Hee University had 2,662 Chinese students in 2015, the largest number among all Korean universities, with Chinese students accounting for two-thirds of its total of 4,098 foreign students.

By number of students, the next largest cohort was at Dongguk University with 2,189 Chinese students or almost 80% of the foreign student body, followed by Konkuk University with 2,182 (85.4%), Korea University with 2,151 (53.5%) and Sungkyunkwan University with 1,856 (61%). South Korea’s Ministry of Education has set a goal of attracting 200,000 foreign students by 2023.