Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992

The Law: Federal legislation permitting Chinese students and scholars to remain in the United States and apply for permanent residency

Also known as: Public Law 102-404

Date: Enacted on October 9, 1992

Significance: The passage of this law indicated that U.S. immigration policies could be influenced by domestic political developments of other countries.

The history of Chinese students coming to study in the United States could be traced back to the early twentieth century. This history was interrupted in 1949 with the victory of the Chinese Communist Revolution. Between 1949 and 1972, when China and the United States were Cold War enemies and closed to each other, there existed no educational exchanges between the two nations, and hence almost no students from China could be found on American campuses. Only with the normalization of Sino-American relations in 1972, which was marked by President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China, did educational exchanges between the two countries resume.

Such exchanges accelerated during the late 1970’s, when Chinese leaders decided to adopt the reform and open policy (in 1978) and the United States and China established diplomatic relations (1979). An integral component of the U.S.-China educational exchange was that Chinese students were allowed to study in the United States. The number of Chinese students in the United States grew steadily and by 1989 reached more than fifty thousand. These students, especially those who were sponsored financially by the Chinese government, were required or expected to go back to China upon graduation. However, their status was changed fromstudent status to immigrant status by a major political event in China—the Tiananmen Square massacre, also known as the June Fourth incident.

Between April 15 and June 4, 1989, large-scale demonstrations occurred in and near the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, with most participants being students and intellectuals. The demonstrators called for deepening economic and political reforms as well as curbing rampant official corruption. Similar demonstrations also took place in many other Chinese cities. The Chinese leadership responded first with denunciation of the protests, then with half-hearted dialogues with student representatives, and finally on June 4, 1989, with military crackdown, killing hundreds (or thousands according to a different estimate) of protesters, mostly students. Following this violence, the Chinese government conducted widespread arrests of protesters and political dissidents and purged liberal-minded officials.

The Chinese government’s brutal suppression of the civilian protesters incurred condemnations and various sanctions from the international community, especially from Western nations. Some Westerngovernments, including the United States, also took measures to protect Chinese nationals then residing in their countries from persecution by the Chinese government. On April 11, 1990, President George H.W. Bush issued Executive Order 12711, permitting Chinese students, visiting scholars, and other Chinese who had been in the United States between June 5, 1989, and April 11, 1990, to stay until July 1, 1993. Then, in 1992, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Student Protection Act, which had been initiated by California Democratic representative Nancy Pelosi.

This act allowed Chinese nationals who entered the United States before the issuance of Executive Order 12711 (April 11, 1990) to apply for permanent resident status. The stated purpose of this act was to prevent political persecution of Chinese students in the aftermath of the June 4 incident. One provision of the act was that permanent resident status granted to Chinese nationals under the act would be subtracted from the immigration spaces available in later years. Most Chinese students submitted applications and were granted green cards. Though students were supposed to be the beneficiaries of this legislation, some of those receiving green cards were actually illegal immigrants from the province of Fujian who had been smuggled into the United States by “snakehead” gangs. Altogether, more than eighty thousand Chinese nationals became permanent residents because of this act.

The Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992 sent a strong signal to the Chinese government that political persecution of its citizens was unacceptable to the international community and that it must treat them humanely. The act benefited not only the Chinese immigrants admitted under the act but also the United States, given that most of them were well educated and possessed scientific and technological expertise that were much needed in the United States.

Yunqiu Zhang

Further Reading

  • Barth, Kelly, ed. The Tiananmen Square Massacre. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press/Thomson Gale, 2003. 
  • Poston, Dudley L., Jr., and Hua Luo. “Chinese Student and Labor Migration to the United States: Trends and Policies Since the 1980’s.” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 16, no. 3 (2007): 323- 356. 
  • Qian, Ning. Chinese Students Encounter America. Translated by T. K. Chu. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. 
  • U.S. Congress. House Committee on the Judiciary. Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992: Report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Chinese American press; Chinese immigrants; Education; Foreign exchange students; Higher education.

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