Chinese students swoon at visa extension announcement

Chinese students make up the largest portion of international students in the University of Washington. (Photo by Irene Lu)
Chinese students make up the largest portion of international students in the University of Washington. (Photo by Irene Lu)

Last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing was pretty exciting, as meetings of world leaders go. In addition to a “historic agreement” between the U.S. and China to curb carbon emissions, President Obama announced a reciprocal visa extension for Chinese students, workers, and tourists coming to the U.S.

The agreement extends the validity of student visas from one year to five years, and tourist and business visa from one year to ten years. The new rules won’t extend the allowed duration of each visit, which varies from visa to visa.

But what might sound like minor change in visa policy to many Americans is actually a really big deal for the thousands of Chinese citizens in the Northwest.

Many of my Chinese friends celebrated the good news, sharing the link on their WeChat wall with plenty of exclamation marks and smiling emojis.

Kristi Heim, the executive director of Washington State China Relations Council, explains that the student visa extension will allow students to travel home to see their families without worrying about not getting their visa renewed on time before their flight back to the U.S.

Back when the first APEC summit was held right here in the Northwest in 1993, former president Bill Clinton described China as country that “anybody should be reluctant to isolate.”

Today more than 230 thousand Chinese students make up over a quarter of international student population at U.S. universities, contributing billions of dollars in the U.S. economy. Beijing alone sends over 50 thousand students to the U.S each year. That is equivalent 7 percent of the entire Seattle population. The University of Washington has close to four thousand students from China.

In the past, all of those international students had to renew their visas every year. That meant a lot of paperwork, and a heavy burden for visa officer staffing. Not only that, the U.S. visa application fee is $160. Adding on the transportation to the U.S. embassies, Chinese students pay four times as much as students from Hong Kong and Taiwan to renew their visas.

“Believe me, this will pay huge dividends for American and Chinese citizens,” said John Kerry, the U.S. Secret of State at Beijing’s press conference, as he gave out the first 11 travelers’ visa.

The visa renewal burden is just a small part of the challenge facing Chinese students hoping to study in the United States.

One of my favorite movies, “American Dreams in China,” tells the story of three college friends who built an English language school called New Dreams in China, assisting thousands of Chinese students on U.S. exams like SAT, TOEFL, and GRE to apply to American universities.

Toward the end of the film, one of the founders delivers a speech during a court dispute with American companies, which spoke for many students in China:

When I was eighteen, I memorized the whole Xinhua English dictionary… I was only considered mediocre among my peers. Chinese students are extremely adept at taking exams. You can’t imagine what they’re willing to go through to succeed,” Cheng says.

Although recent numbers showed more Chinese students returning home after pursuing a foreign degree, thousands of Chinese students who come to study in the U.S. are still chasing the American dream, believing they can find better opportunities and better quality of life in America. Amongst my Chinese peers at the University of Washington, many of them want to follow this “formula to success” — get an internship after graduation on Optional Practical Training, then the H1B visa if they’re lucky enough, and ultimately apply for the golden green card.

It’s a fierce battle: Not only are they at a language disadvantage when competing with American graduates, they face stiff competition with millions of Chinese students chasing the same dream.

Sure, you might find a few wealthy Chinese students boosting the Seattle economy by shopping at luxury stores, occupying expensive off-campus housing with skyrocketing rents, and leasing luxury cars. But most visiting students are working as hard as possible and struggling to make ends while they here.  

The visa validity extension is a nice return for the years of effort they put in to get to the United States.

According to UW student Wendy Wang from Shanghai, who has studied here for three years, the change will save her a huge amount of time and money that she used to spend renewing her visa every year.

Extension of tourist visa validity from one year to ten years will also make things much easier for Chinese parents visiting children who study here. Once the parents obtain their tourist visa, they will be able to travel to the U.S. multiple times over ten years. Attending kids’ graduation will no longer be quite so chaotic and stressful.

As a city that’s already popular for Chinese tourists, Heim suggests Seattle should definitely be prepared for a new flood of visitors following the visa change. She’s excitedly anticipating expanded tourism promotion throughout China showing of all the interesting places to visit in Washington, as well as a need for increased hotel capacity here, and other big opportunities for our local economy.