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19 October 2020updated 28 Aug 2021 3:51pm

How US-China social ties are fraying as trade war rages

Data analysis by the New Statesman shows that travel, university enrollment and book translation is in decline.

With tensions between the US President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping rising, it is not only the superpowers’ economic ties that have started to come undone. New Statesman data analysis has found cultural and social exchange between the two nations is also in decline after two decades of steady growth.

Visitor arrivals to the US from China, for example, have dipped, as has the number of non-immigrant visas issued to Chinese nationals by American authorities. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated tensions, and with Joe Biden fashioning himself as something of a China hawk, this trend is likely to continue even if there are Democratic gains in next month’s US presidential election.

Tourism and visas

Tourist arrivals from China to the US have fallen under Trump’s presidency after decades of growth. Figures from the I-94 arrivals programme show the number of Chinese visitors rose rapidly under Obama’s administration: in 2009, around 500,000 Chinese residents arrived in the US to stay one night or more, rising sixfold to more than three million by 2017.

[See also: Has Covid-19 delivered the death blow to US-China FDI]

Over the past two years, however, numbers have dwindled – even before the Covid-19 pandemic caused global travel to collapse.

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Conversely, UN figures looking at tourism from the US to China show the number of arrivals rising slightly since 2015, though the data only extends up to 2018. This suggests falling tourism is not a mirror phenomenon for both countries.



US visa figures follow a similar trend to the country’s tourism statistics. The number of non-immigrant visas issued to Chinese nationals rose from 700,000 in 2010 to a record 2.6 million in 2015. The number is now half that, though this is not wholly due to a fall in visitor numbers. In 2014, the Obama administration agreed to extend the validity of multiple-entry short-term tourist and business visas from one to ten years – meaning long-term residents were no longer required to renew their visas every year. The total number of visas issued has dropped.



Students studying abroad

In 1979, China’s leader Deng Xiaoping told the US secretary of state Henry Kissinger: “We have nothing to fear from Western education.” Chinese policy reflected this. As the country opened up its economy and society after the death of Mao Zedong, the number of students choosing to study in America soared, from essentially zero in 1980 to nearly 100,000 at the start of the Obama presidency in 2008. The following year, student numbers rose by 30 per cent, and increased by up to 23 per cent each year until 2015.

[See also: US-China decoupling is going into reverse]

The rapid increase in rates started to taper off and, by 2018, the number of Chinese students at American institutions was only 1.7 per cent higher than the year before. This is due in part to the Chinese government’s efforts to build a world-class higher education sector of its own. Yu Jie, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank, also suggests this is due to hostile rhetoric from the Trump administration, which has cast some Chinese students as threats to national security.



“We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society,” Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said in a speech in July. “China sent propagandists into our press conferences, our research centres, our high schools, our colleges.”

The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the trend. While demand for higher education from international students has not dropped as dramatically as initially feared, the impracticality of travel today has still put many students off studying abroad. Phil Baty, of the Times Higher Education, adds that perceptions of a US that is increasingly unwelcoming to people of Chinese descent, and of a government that has bungled its coronavirus response, have kept some Chinese students away.

Meanwhile, numbers of American students studying in China have always been much smaller. In 2002, this figure was at 2,500 US students, rising sixfold to 15,000 by 2011, under Hu Jintao’s presidency. This has since dropped, however, with the number of American students in China last year standing at 11,600.



Film and literature 

Although the figures are on a small scale, research by the University of Rochester Translation Database suggests the cultural decoupling between the US and China has also been felt in the world of literature. 



In 2008, the database found ten books that were authored in China had been translated and published for the US market. This tripled to a peak of 34 during the Obama years, and numbers have fallen since.

Meanwhile, although Chinese-produced films have never been particularly popular with US audiences, Hollywood productions have historically made up a large chunk of Chinese box office revenues.

Figures from ENData show that Chinese-produced releases are making up a growing proportion of revenues from the top 25 highest-grossing films in China, following China’s home-grown box office boom. However, due to the minimum screen quota of domestic productions imposed on Chinese cinemas, some films are classified as Chinese or joint ventures despite being primarily US productions. The figures are therefore likely to overestimate the decoupling of the countries’ film sectors.


This article is part of a wider special New Statesman Media Group feature on the US-China decoupling. Elsewhere on the New Statesman, Jeremy Cliffe reports on how economic integration between the two superpowers has shifted into reverse, and Emily Tamkin looks into how the relationship is impacting the US election. In Tech Monitor, Ed Targett reviews the growing impact this shift is having on technology supply chains. And on Investment Monitor, there are features exploring whether Covid-19 has delivered a death blow to US-China FDI, and how drops in Chinese investment have a bigger impact on Trump-voting states.

Do also look out for the next episode of our World Review podcast, on which Emily and Jeremy will be joined by Courtney Fingar of Investment Monitor and Sommer Mathis of City Monitor (another new NSMG site, focused on urbanism) to discuss US-China decoupling and other mega-stories that define the backdrop to the US election.