Beijing issued an official warning on Monday telling students planning to head to the US they should think twice and exercise caution before applying for a visa to the US.

China’s Education Ministry has reportedly urged Chinese students and academics to “undertake risk assessment” before they try to get visas from the US Embassy and consulates in China.

The move follows a recent spike in unexplained visa delays and denials that left many distraught as their trips and flights booked beforehand had been affected.

State broadcaster China Central Television also quoted the ministry as saying that many Chinese students already in the US have also had their visas restricted or renewal delayed or even rejected.

The warning comes hot on the heels of news that the US State Department has started to request that almost all immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants must provide their social media accounts – on WeChat, QQ, Weibo, etc, for Chinese applicants – for additional vetting.

The State Department says it has updated its visa forms to request the additional information, including “social-media identifiers” from almost all applicants. The change, which was proposed in March 2018, is expected to affect about 15 million foreigners who apply for visas to enter the US each year, according to The Associated Press.

Education consultant agencies in China are now reminding applicants to check what they have said and shared on social media, especially about sensitive topics like gun control and religion, before handing in visa applications.

Applicants will also need to provide their travel history from the past five years to the US and elsewhere, as well as information about their parents such as occupation and religious background. Some netizens have joked that the latest move is tantamount to censorship and prosecution when the US continues to tout freedom of speech.

The extra red tape being applied by the State Department may further slow down visa approvals for Chinese students, when applications have already hit the US Embassy in Beijing and consulates across China, while students have to be in the US by September, before the start of the new academic year.

A file photo shows Chinese students at Columbia University in New York celebrating graduation. Photo: Xinhua

US has 370,000 Chinese students

China is the largest source of international students in the US, accounting for nearly a third of the total, according to the latest statistics from the US Department of Homeland Security.

The number of Chinese students in the US stood at almost 370,000 as of March, larger than the total population of many US cities, and about eight in ten Chinese students are enrolled in higher education institutions. Chinese students and their spending power have been a pillar supporting the operations and economy of US universities and colleges and many cities that house them.

But so far the deteriorating ties between the two superpowers – seen in tit-for-tat tariffs and intensified rivalry in tech and military projects – have yet to spill over and stem the still robust flow of Chinese pupils to tertiary institutions in the US.

Well-off Chinese parents, especially government officials and businesspeople, while repeating Beijing’s patriotic platitudes in public and in cyber domain, may still choose the US for their kids, either for better education or employment or even emigration opportunities. An English-speaking environment, top-tier universities and rule of law are cited among the key factors that woo them.

A survey by China’s largest private education provider, New Oriental, found that 43% of respondents ranked the US as their top choice in 2019, compared with 49% two years ago. But there is also an emerging trend among prospective Chinese students that now favors the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia.

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