Cybersecurity & Tech Foreign Relations & International Law

What Do Chinese University Students Think About U.S.-China Tech Competition?

Christina Knight
Tuesday, August 22, 2023, 2:00 PM
A dispatch from Tsinghua University
Tsinghua University Old Campus in Beijing, March 16, 2013. (Jens Schott Knudsen,; CC BY-NC 2.0,

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“We have this saying, technological backwardness brings on beatings by others (落后就要挨打),” Xinyi*, an electrical engineering doctoral student at Tsinghua University, China’s leading technology school, told me over coffee. We sat at Eureka, a Greek-inspired cat cafe hidden behind a hot-pot canteen on Tsinghua’s campus in a rare leafy corner of Beijing. “We had no technology before, and we suffered. Now, China has learned from the past,” she said. In other words, technological inferiority leads to hardship. Xinyi wants to help China avoid repeating this mistake. But she is also realistic, and slightly disillusioned. Her main priorities are a house, a car, and—more than anything—to escape neijuan: the stress, anxiety, and competitiveness in Chinese society. China’s technological advancement excites her, yet her own future raises concerns.

Xinyi’s sentiment exemplifies the tension faced by most Tsinghua engineering students I interviewed for my global affairs master's thesis in Spring 2023. These students shared their thoughts on U.S. technology sanctions, China’s domestic innovation, and this strategic competition’s role in their lives. Their opinions come nowhere near encompassing all Chinese engineers or Tsinghua students. Yet, as members of the future Chinese political elite, producers of some of the most cited math and computing papers worldwide, and candidates for Beijing’s premium semiconductor workforce, these engineers provide a unique window into the defining strategic endeavor of our time: advanced technology competition between the U.S. and China.

Nestled between Beijing’s iconic Summer Palace and “China’s Silicon Valley” (Tsinghua University Science Park), the tall, glass buildings that house China’s latest quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) developments juxtapose crumbling Qing dynasty ruins. Students race handmade robots next to elderly workers peddling wooden carts filled with leaves. Professors practice the ancient art of Qi on fields where students run laps from dawn until midnight, fulfilling their smartphone-monitored graduation requirement of 5,000 steps a day. A nucleus of China’s rapid development since 1978, the torrent of kuai jiezou shenghuo (fast-paced life) floods the campus. Tsinghua University—like much of modern China—is a strange convergence of old and new. 

Tsinghua University was founded in 1911, amid the so-called century of humiliation, and these historical roots still dominate student thought. For a quick history lesson, after the Boxer Rebellion, a protest against Western exploitation in the early 1900s, foreign powers forced the Qing dynasty to pay a $333 million indemnity, essentially bankrupting the empire. The U.S. government donated some of these reparations back to China to help revive the education system. The Qing dynasty emperor used this money to found Tsinghua—now, with no small irony, the vanguard of China’s technological transformation into the powerhouse that Washington now views as its “most consequential competitor.”

“We have this other saying, ‘Never forget national humiliation,’” Xinyi explained, sipping her latte. “Don’t forget the humiliation that our country has suffered.” 

Many students noted that U.S. technology sanctions, such as the 2019 Huawei export ban and the addition of Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) to the Entity List in 2020, evoked memories of historical injustices, like the First Opium War in 1839. Sanctions continue this trend. “It’s like the Japanese invasion of China in some ways,” one mechanical engineering doctoral student explained. “When a foreign country oppresses or sanctions China, Chinese people feel motivated to contribute.” 

According to multiple students, the export bans increased many Chinese people’s “national consciousness” (minzurenzhigan). This national responsibility compelled them to study STEM and contribute to China’s technological development. “Many students, like me, choose to study electronic engineering or similar majors because the country needs us,” one engineer said. Another computer science student described his transition from acting to artificial intelligence the year before: “In such a crisis—and this is a crisis for China—we all should help. So I changed my career path.” Other graduate students in the School of Integrated Circuits (IC School), a specialized “chip college” established at Tsinghua in 2020, noted that sanctions increased their conviction to pursue careers in the semiconductor industry.

Xinyi also saw her role in this larger mission. “We have always been taught from a young age that we are the country's backbone,” she said. “We work hard so China doesn’t suffer from other countries in the future. Advancing technology is the best way to avoid that.”

We perched cross-legged at a windowsill table overlooking the main room. A friend showed me this bright haven during my first week on campus, and I began to return daily. Eureka, like many student hubs on campus, rippled with excitement. Students huddled around blueprints of electric vehicles, service robots, and smart-agriculture plans, sipping bubble tea or coconut milk lattes, a current favorite among Chinese youth.

As I observed students working together in groups, I was reminded how many noted that overcoming sanctions required collaboration between all Chinese—especially engineers. One student described their role as “screw[s] in a larger machine that can help China.” A quote by Zhou Enlai, China’s first premier, encompasses this sentiment and was mentioned by multiple students: 为中华而读书 or “study for the rise of China.” But, while the comment captures the ambition, dedication, and national duty that ripples through Tsinghua, it’s an incomplete explanation for the rise in Chinese tech ambition. Economic burdens and societal pressures, such as a successful career and traditional family life, are also at play. 

Students recognize their role in the larger mission to combat “Western bullying,” but are also pragmatic. The economic strain exacerbated by the three-year “zero-COVID” lockdown weighs them down. In 2023, youth unemployment reached 18.4 percent, the birth rate dropped to 1.1 births per woman (lower than the projected rate of 1.8 and one of the lowest in the world), and GDP per capita stagnated at $15,556 (compared to $70,248 in the United States). Even the most qualified Tsinghua students are not guaranteed high-paying jobs. As stated, ironically, by a graduate student in the School of Marxism: “Money talks.” 

When asked whether they would choose a job that helped national technology innovation or one with a high income, many students said they would prioritize their own lives and choose the latter. “We need to care for our parents,” an electrical engineer told me. “If I’m offered a better job in the US, I would take it.” Another student admitted, “I’m utilitarian. I will first consider myself. For instance, if I’m offered a job with a $50,000 salary in China and a $150,000 salary in the U.S., I’d more likely choose the U.S.” One computer science student mentioned too many people and too few opportunities. “In this intense competition, I must first think about myself. I want to buy a house, buy a car, and get married.” He sighed. “First, I’ll work hard for myself. Then, if I can, I’ll work hard for my country.” 

But this tension between national and self-interest may not exist much longer. Money indeed talks, and Tsinghua engineers listened: Many students drawn to emerging tech sectors noted their desire to enter the field completely or partially stemming from these increased fiscal opportunities. The Chinese Communist Party has invested billions into cultivating the “talent” of emerging technology sectors through programs like the Youth Thousands Talent Program and specialized schools, such as the School of Integrated Circuits. Entry-level salaries in the semiconductor industry have doubled since 2018. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s total semiconductor research and development expenditures surpassed 3 trillion yuan ($413.5 billion) in 2022. 

Students also mentioned the role of U.S. sanctions in this growth. A doctoral student noted that “the industry blew up” after the Huawei and SMIC bans because they “made everyone, including the government, finally pay attention.” Since 2020, Beijing has poured funding into emerging technologies sectors. When asked about the most significant impact of President Trump’s sanctions, a graduate student in the IC School mentioned nothing about Huawei’s lost earnings. Instead, he spoke about increased opportunities. “To be honest, [sanctions’] largest impact was that they raised my expectations for my future job salary.” 

Whether motivated by money, ideology, or some combination, students flocked to study integrated circuits and electrical engineering in recent years. “My year (the first year), there were 40 students. Now, there are over 200. And that’s just at Tsinghua,” said one student in the IC School. Data from the national college entrance exam also reflect this increased chip interest. 

As China becomes a more attractive place for Chinese engineers to work, the U.S. becomes a less attractive place to live. Many students cited concerns about U.S. visa rejections, discrimination, and gun violence as reasons to stay in China. One student said, “Why would we go? Tsinghua’s resources are improving, and there are tons of jobs.”

Ultimately, Tsinghua students are conflicted about the future of China’s emerging technology industry. On the one hand, many students felt optimistic, buoyed by inflated investments and government attention. “There is no doubt we can develop our domestic supply chain. It is just a matter of time,” one doctoral student said. Another integrated circuits engineer declared that in “two to three years,” China could domesticate the global supply chain. “Taiwan has done it,” he said. “Why can’t we?” An AI engineer mentioned that his field, computer vision, “took off” after sanctions in 2018. He said they made people realize the U.S. regarded China as a real opponent, providing people with a sense of responsibility and a confidence boost.

Multiple students mentioned that subsidies spurred a cohort of start-ups. In the first half of 2022, semiconductor start-ups in China raised 60 billion yuan ($8.78 billion). These fledgling companies specialize in third-generation semiconductors, sensors, GPU, and millimeter-wave radars—all cutting-edge, crucial technologies in the semiconductor space. One of these entrepreneurs even left Silicon Valley (where he studied at Stanford University) to return to China for entrepreneurship. He cited the “obvious” superiority of China’s chip start-up space for his move. Another engineer noted that the bans eradicated the “low-cost monopoly” of foreign chip design and fabrication in the domestic market. “It’s like Coke and Pepsi,” he declared. “No one could enter the space because they had already lowered the price. Now small companies can finally succeed.” 

Students also acknowledged that China may be more technologically advanced than Chinese leadership suggests. One study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in March 2023 highlights China’s technological prowess. While different studies reveal inconclusive levels of advancement, ASPI found that China leads in 37 out of 44 strategic technologies, including defense, space, biotechnology, and energy, and spearheads synthetic biology, electric batteries, 5G, and nano-manufacturing industries.

China’s facade of technological weakness could stem partially from cultural factors, such as the desire to underplay capabilities and modesty. “It is also a mindset or cultural perspective where we tend to speak modestly about our capabilities,” a doctoral student mentioned. Another engineer said the media often encourages the public to maintain this demeanor. He noted that state media often mentioned taoguangyanghui, “to hide one’s capacities and bide one’s time,” and menshengfadacai, “to amass wealth while keeping a low profile.” He said these phrases urged Chinese nationals to help with technological development while downplaying Chinese capabilities publicly. 

But other students doubted China’s ability to succeed independently. A chemistry engineer predicted that China’s chip industry needed no less than 50 years to catch up to global leaders. Another student said, “A generation or two? Who knows?” Someone else recognized that sanctions had taken a toll: “For me, sanctions are actually pretty good. They popularized our industry and increased our salaries.” He then noted, “[But] if I were the boss of Huawei, I wouldn’t be saying the same thing.” More fundamentally, engineers cite China’s lack of entrepreneurship and strict education system as reasons for the nation’s lack of innovation. They noted that the United States has developed more than China and that the U.S. fosters talent more effectively. Many students blamed this weakness on China’s strict examination system. Other students emphasized the necessity to access advanced machinery and their sustained hopes for global cooperation. 

Tsinghua’s robust network of top-tier engineers provides unique insight into U.S.-China technology competition. Yet much uncertainty still exists: Do heightened salaries and increased job opportunities reflect actual industry growth or false inflation by national and local government stimuli? Once students graduate and enter the industry, does their optimism and determination disappear? What does the future of China’s domestic technology industry look like, and what role do U.S. sanctions have in molding this environment?

While China may have developed far past the decaying dynasty that Theodore Roosevelt once pitied, Tsinghua students have not forgotten their school’s—or nation’s—past. Spurred by a strong historical memory and ever-present neijuan, Tsinghua engineers are committed to China’s technological future and out-competing the United States. “We have been bullied,” one engineer said. “And we will work together to face this challenge.”

*All names in this piece have been changed or excluded to protect students' identities

Christina Knight graduated from Stanford University and the Schwarzman Scholarship with degrees in symbolic systems artificial intelligence (B.S.), philosophy (M.A.), and global affairs (M.S.).

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