Restoring Fulbright in the P.R.C. – A Cost-Benefit Analysis

By , December 7, 2020

Created by a Coalition of Fulbright P.R.C. Alums and Grantees

On July 14th, 2020, President Trump signed Executive Order 13936 (“Hong Kong Normalization”), which included the termination of the Fulbright exchange Program in Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China.

The termination of this program should be reversed. Established in the aftermath of WWII, the Fulbright program was designed to facilitate peaceful international cooperation between citizens and nations by fostering educational and scholarly exchange with 160 countries. Today, the Fulbright’s P.R.C. programs remain a powerful tool for U.S. foreign policy for managing China’s rise. The programs benefit us in the following ways:

  • Deepening U.S. understandings of China: Fulbright programs in the P.R.C. strengthen the U.S.’s grasp of China so that we can produce more effective policy to confront its rise. Leading China expert and Fulbright China alum Prof. David Shambaugh (George Washington University) puts it simply: “Having Americans with on-the-ground and in-depth exposure to China deepens the US national capacity to analyze China and explain it to American citizens and officials, which is a direct contribution to US national security.”
    • Fulbrighters in the P.R.C. research topics and expose information of major interest to U.S. policymakers. They brief government officials and testify before Congress on topics from Chinese authoritarianism and influence activities to Chinese finance and civil society. They do groundbreaking reporting on Chinese repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. They publish analyses of the centralization of power under Xi Jinping.*
    • U.S. Fulbrighters in the P.R.C. strengthen scholarly networks, in-country knowledge, and language skills that help them educate future generations of China-watchers and the American citizenry at large. Surveys have found than more than 85-90 percent of Fulbrighters across all countries report deepening field knowledge during their grants and maintaining professional collaborations with host country colleagues upon their return to the U.S.
    • Academic and scholarly exchange with China will continue to face headwinds amidst the country’s increasingly hostile environment. Longstanding channels like Fulbright will become increasingly valuable in this context; we need to maintain them.
  • Advancing U.S. soft power: the Fulbright program in the P.R.C. has sent more than 3,000 U.S. and Chinese scholars and students between the two countries since the normalization of U.S.- China relations in 1979. These exchanges boost the U.S.’s image in the P.R.C.
    • Fulbright gives Chinese participants a chance to enjoy the benefits of a free society and build lasting networks with U.S. institutions and communities. Academic studies of Chinese Fulbrighters report how they become “cultural interpreters” of the U.S. after returning to China.
    • U.S. Fulbrighters in the P.R.C. present positive images of the U.S. to Chinese audiences. Jesse Appell (Fulbright China 2012-13) has won millions of fans in China as a bilingual comedian performing on Chinese television; he started this career as a Fulbright studying Chinese humor.
    • In the coming years, state-sponsored nationalism within China will continue to present increasingly negative portraits of American society that reinforce popular beliefs about Chinese superiority. Fulbright programs in the P.R.C. help us fight these distortions.
  • Promoting World Peace: In 1945, Senator J. William Fulbright proposed the international exchange program that would eventually bear his name in the hope that it could end all wars and the human destruction that accompany them.  To Senator Fulbright, people-to-people relations could “contribute to the feeling of a common humanity, to an emotional awareness that other countries are populated not by doctrines that we fear but by individual people — people with the same capacity for pleasure and pain, for cruelty and kindness, as the people we were brought up with in our own countries.”
    • World peace may be a lofty goal, but as tensions between the U.S. and Chinese governments continue to rise, it is even more important that mutual understanding be allowed to flourish between the two peoples.

The Fulbright provides these benefits for a very cost-effective price of around $5.5 million per year. Other costs cited by opponents of the program are either overblown or very manageable for U.S. policymakers:

  • Opponents say that the program risks sponsoring researchers involved in espionage or similar activities for the P.R.C. But Fulbright is a U.S. government program, and U.S. authorities can and do closely vet Chinese applicants for these risks. The P.R.C. sends tens of thousands of students and researchers each year to the U.S.; removing a hundred slots in a program closely monitored by the U.S. government has no impact on their ability to use academic exchange for economic espionage. We fight Chinese espionage through continually improving our counterintelligence techniques and forcing universities to raise their own standards; we gain nothing from cutting Fulbright.
  • Opponents say that Fulbright programs in the P.R.C. are not reciprocal. They argue that Chinese officials restrict what U.S. researchers can study, while Chinese researchers can study what they please; and that Chinese officials interfere with Chinese alumni establishing local Fulbright associations.
    • The Fulbright Program is one of the few international education exchange programs that is reciprocal, with partner countries sharing in the cost. China contributes approximately $1.37 million each year;
    • Interference with Chinese Fulbrighters’ organizing is an issue that should be monitored. For American Fulbrighters, however, formal restrictions on study topics are not consistently applied in practice. Many Fulbrighters find that they have significant flexibility in adjusting their “formally approved” topic of study, and recent grantees have covered sensitive areas like ethnic policy, P.R.C.-Taiwan relations, and China’s authoritarian “social credit” system.
  • Opponents express concerns about risks to personal safety of American grantees from arbitrary enforcement of P.R.C. law. There have been no public incidents during Xi Jinping’s tenure of Fulbright scholars in the P.R.C facing extended arbitrary detention. U.S. officials have successfully handled incidents in countries like Russia in the past without needing to terminate the program.
    • Nonetheless, this issue should be monitored going forward. There is precedent for temporarily suspending Fulbright exchanges to ensure scholars’ safety, and such a decision would remain an option for the U.S. in future years as circumstances evolve.
  • Opponents say that ending Fulbright is a response to China’s increasing record of human rights violations and anti-competitive industrial policy. We maintain Fulbright programs in a number of countries with questionable human rights records like Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, and Russia. What’s more, it is Fulbright China alums that have done pioneering work exposing issues like Uighur repression in China, precisely because of the training and exposure they gained in Fulbright. The U.S. has much more effective ways of holding countries accountable than cancelling Fulbright and has generally not used the program in this fashion.
  • Opponents say that ending Fulbright is part of a broader strategy of being “tough on China” and breaking from the mistakes of “engagement.” This is hollow posturing. Ending Fulbright, for all the reasons above, harms our national security. There is nothing tough about that.

The past five years have seen a major evolution in the U.S.’s posture towards China. Just as American policymakers after World War II sought to grapple with the implications of the Soviet Union’s emergence as our leading rival, so, too, are we now developing our strategy for confronting China’s rise. We need a new “Long Telegram” for China, just like the original 8000-word “Long Telegram” that U.S. ambassador George Kennan wrote from Moscow to his State Department colleagues in 1946. This missive guided

U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War — and yet, as Condoleeza Rice and her colleagues lamented in a recent interview, we have no equivalent for the China challenge.

Kennan’s original Long Telegram drew upon knowledge of the Soviet Union built up through decades of scholarship and exchange. Scholarship and exchange is exactly what Fulbright in the P.R.C. does. It builds expertise among U.S. scholars of China that can better inform U.S. policy. It also fights disinformation through cross-cultural exchange that shows China the best of the U.S. Our country is stronger and more secure because of Fulbright in the P.R.C. We owe it to ourselves to restore it.


*Testimony: Aynne Kokas (Fulbright China 2008-09), professor at University of Virginia, testimony before House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia-Pacific hearing on “U.S. Response to China’s Influence Operations,” March 2018; Jessica Chen Weiss (Fulbright China 2006-07), professor at Cornell University, testimony before U.S. House Intelligence Committee hearing on “China’s Digital Authoritarianism: Surveillance, Influence, and Political Control,” May 2019; James Feinerman (Fulbright China 1992-93, 2006), professor at Georgetown University, testimony before Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing on “China’s Human Rights Lawyers: Current Challenges and Prospects,” July 2009; Kellee S. Tsai (Fulbright China 1996-97), professor at Johns Hopkins University, testimony before U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China’s financial system, August 2006. Reporting: Megha Rajagopalan (Fulbright China 2010-11) at Buzzfeed has released a series of deep investigations of Uighur repression in Xinjiang since 2017, while Te-Ping Chen (Fulbright China 2010-11) covered the Hong Kong protests in 2014 for the Wall Street Journal. Megha Rajagopalan, “This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like,” Buzzfeed, October 17, 2017,; Te-Ping Chen, “Clashes Break Out at Hong Kong Protests,” Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2014, to-consider-next-move-1412314374. Scholarship: see, for instance, University of San Francisco professor Peter Lorentzen’s work with Xi Lu (Singapore), “Personal Ties, Meritocracy, and China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign,” working paper, November 21, 2018,

  • Meirong Fu and Xin Zhao, “Utilizing the Effects of the Fulbright Program in Contemporary China: Motivational Elements in Chinese Scholars’ Post-Fulbright Life,” Cambridge Journal of China Studies Vol. 12, No. 3, 2017.

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