US, Beijing aim to boost number of American students in China

WASHINGTON — Stephen Garrett, a 27-year-old graduate student, always thought he would study in China, but the country’s restrictive COVID-19 policies made it nearly impossible and now he sees interest among fellow scholars wane even after China reopened.

Common concerns, he said, include restrictions on academic freedom and the risk of being stranded in China.

These days, only about 700 American students are studying at Chinese universities, down from a peak of close to 25,000 a decade ago, while there are nearly 300,000 Chinese students at U.S. schools.

Some young Americans are discouraged from investing their time in China by what they see as diminishing economic opportunities and strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

Whatever the reason for the imbalance, U.S. officials and scholars bemoan the lost opportunities for young people to experience life in China and gain insight into a formidable American adversary.

And officials from both countries agree that more should be done to encourage the student exchanges, at a time when Beijing and Washington can hardly agree on anything else.

“I do not believe the environment is as hospitable for educational exchange as it was in the past, and I think both sides are going to need to take steps,” said Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

The U.S. has advised its. citizens to “reconsider travel” to China over concerns of arbitrary detentions and widened use of exit bans to bar Americans from leaving the country. Campbell said this has hindered the rebuilding of the exchanges and easing the advisory is now under “active consideration.”

For its part, Beijing is rebuilding programs for international students that were shuttered during the pandemic, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has invited tens of thousands of U.S. high school students to visit.

The situation was far different after President Barack Obama started the 100,000 Strong initiative in 2009 to drastically increase the number of U.S. students studying in China.

By 2012, there were as many as 24,583 U.S. students in China, according to data by the Chinese education ministry. The Open Doors reports by the Institute of International Education, which only track students enrolled in U.S. schools and studying in China for credit, show the number peaked at 14,887 in the 2011-12 school year. But 10 years later, the number was down to only 211.

In late 2023, the number of American students stood at 700, according to Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, who said this was far too few in a country of such importance to the United States.

“We need young Americans to learn Mandarin. We need young Americans to have an experience of China,” Burns said.

Without these U.S. students, “in the next decade, we won’t be able to exercise savvy, knowledgeable diplomacy in China,” warned David Moser, an American linguist who went to China in the 1980s and is now tasked with establishing a new master’s program for international students at Beijing Capital Normal University.

Moser recalled the years when American students found China fascinating and thought an education there could lead to an interesting career. But he said the days of bustling trade and money deals are gone, while American students and their parents are watching China and the United States move away from each other. “So people think investment in China as a career is a dumb idea,” Moser said.

After 2012, the number of American students in China dipped but held steady at more than 11,000 for several years, according to Open Doors, until the pandemic hit, when China closed its borders and kept most foreigners out. Programs for overseas students that took years to build were shuttered, and staff were let go, Moser said.

Amy Gadsden, executive director of China Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, also attributed some of the declining interest to foreign businesses closing their offices in China. Beijing’s draconian governing style, laid bare by its response to the pandemic, also has given American students a pause, she said.

Garrett, who is on track to graduate this summer from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said he is ambivalent about working in China, citing the lack of access to information, restrictions on discussions of politically sensitive issues and China’s sweeping anti-spying law. He had lived in Hong Kong as a teenager and interned in mainland China, and said he is still interested in traveling to China, but not anytime soon.

Some American students remain committed to studying in China, said Andrew Mertha, director of the China Global Research Center at SAIS. “There are people who are interested in China for China’s sake,” he said. “I don’t think those numbers are affected at all.”

About 40 U.S. students are now studying at the Hopkins-Nanjing center in the eastern Chinese city, and the number is expected to go up in the fall to approach the pre-pandemic level of 50-60 students, said Adam Webb, the center’s American co-director.

Among them is Chris Hankin, 28, who said he believed time in China was irreplaceable because he could interact with ordinary people and travel to places outside the radar of international media. “As the relationship becomes more intense, it’s important to have that color, to have that granularity,” said Hankin, a master’s student of international relations with a focus on energy and the environment.

Jonathan Zhang, a Chinese American studying at the prestigious Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said it was more important than ever to be in China at a time of tense relations. “It’s really hard to talk about China without being in China,” he said. “I think it’s truly a shame that so many people have never stepped foot in China.”

Zhang was met with concerns when he deferred an offer at a consulting firm to go Beijing. “They’re like, ‘Oh, be safe,’ or like, ‘What do you mean, you’re going back to China?'” Zhang said. “I feel like the (Chinese) government is trying with an earnest effort, but I feel like a lot of this trust has been broken.”

Gadsden said U.S. universities need to do more to nudge students to consider China. “We need to be more intentional about creating the opportunities and about encouraging students to do this deeper work on China, because it’s going to be interesting for them, and it’s going to be valuable for the U.S.-China relationship and for the world,” she said.

In China, Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations and a national political adviser, has suggested Beijing clarify its laws involving foreign nationals, introduce a separate system for political reviews of foreign students’ dissertations, and make it easier for foreign graduates to find internships and jobs in Chinese companies.

Meanwhile, China is hosting American high school students under a plan Xi unveiled in November to welcome 50,000 in the next five years.

In January, a group of 24 students from Iowa’s Muscatine High School became the first to travel to China. The all-expenses-paid, nine-day trip took them to the Beijing Zoo, Great Wall, Palace Museum, the Yu Garden and Shanghai Museum.

Sienna Stonking, one of the Muscatine students, now wants to return to China to study.

“If I had the opportunity, I would love to go to college in China,” she told China’s state broadcaster CGTN. “Honestly, I love it there.”

Iran launches aerial attack on Israel, escalating conflict; US reiterates ‘ironclad’ support of Israel

washington — Iran has launched an aerial attack on Israel from Iranian territory, marking a major escalation in a long running conflict between the two rival regional powers.  

Iranian state TV network IRINN reported at about midnight on Sunday that the Islamic republic’s forces had launched dozens of attack drones from Iranian territory toward Israel. It said the attack was in retaliation for what Iranian officials say was an Israeli strike that killed several senior Iranian military commanders in Damascus on April 1.  

The Israeli military, which has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the April 1 strike, issued a statement saying its air and naval forces were monitoring the Iranian drone attack.  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised message that Israel will defend itself “against any threat and will do so level-headedly and with determination.”  

The Biden administration said the United States will “stand with the people of Israel and support their defense against these threats from Iran.” 

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson issued a statement saying: “This attack is likely to unfold over a number of hours. President Biden has been clear: our support for Israel’s security is ironclad.”  

Netanyahu acknowledged that support in his own statement, saying: “We appreciate the U.S. standing alongside Israel, as well as the support of Britain, France and many other countries.”   

Biden returns to White House after Iran targets Israel

washington — U.S. President Joe Biden cut short a weekend visit to his holiday Rehoboth beach home in the state of Delaware to quickly return to the White House after Iran targeted Israel with more than 100 armed drones.  

“Iran has begun an airborne attack against Israel,” said White House National Security spokesperson Adrienne Watson in a mid-afternoon statement on Saturday.  The president’s team “is in constant communication with Israeli officials as well as other partners and allies. This attack is likely to unfold over a number of hours. President Biden has been clear: our support for Israel’s security is ironclad. The United States will stand with the people of Israel and support their defense against these threats from Iran.”  

After returning to the White House, Biden went to the situation room for a briefing.  

Among those present, according to the White House, were Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown, Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Vice President Kamala Harris and Chief of Staff Jeff Zients attended through a secure video connection.    

Biden had told reporters Friday that he expected an Iranian attack on Israel “sooner rather than later.” Asked by a journalist what was his message for Iran, the president succinctly replied: “Don’t.”  

The U.S. military began moving extra troops and equipment to sites in the Middle East, defense officials confirmed on Friday. It has about 40,000 troops in the region.  

The U.S. Navy moved two guided-missile destroyers capable of intercepting drones and incoming missiles closer to Israel in anticipation of the Iranian attack, reported The Wall Street Journal.  

The U.S. military was prepared to assist Israel in intercepting any weapons launched at its ally, CNN reported.  U.S. Navy forces in the Red Sea have previously intercepted long-range missiles launched toward Israel from Yemen by the Iranian-allied Houthi forces.

The Biden administration’s response to the Iranian attack will be closely watched by his political opponents, coming less than seven months before a general election rematch between the Democratic Party incumbent and his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.  

Even before the Iranian drones reached Israeli airspace, some Republican lawmakers began reacting.  

Representative Steve Scalise of the state of Louisiana wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that the United States “must stand strongly with our greatest Middle East ally as they defend themselves against Iran,” adding that the Biden administration “cannot continue to capitulate to terrorists.” 

Scrabble game getting a bit of a makeover, at least in Europe

new york — Scrabble is getting a bit of a makeover, at least in Europe.

New version advertised as being more team-oriented and quicker to play

Mattel has unveiled a double-sided board that features both the classic word-building game and Scrabble Together, a new rendition designed to be accessible “for anyone who finds word games intimidating.”

This new version, which is now available across Europe, is advertised as being more team-oriented and quicker to play. The update marks the first significant change to Scrabble’s board in more than 75 years, Mattel said Tuesday.

“We want to ensure the game continues to be inclusive for all players,” Ray Adler, vice president and global head of games at Mattel said in a prepared statement, noting that consumers will still be able to choose between the classic game and new version.

Seeking to expand their reach, toy companies have rolled out alternative or simplified ways to play board games for years, ranging from “junior” editions made for younger children to multiple sets of instructions that players can opt into for increasing difficulty.

Scrabble Together is marketed toward players of all ages. Jim Silver, a toy-industry expert and CEO of review site TTPM, said the double-sided board is a smart approach because it allows players to switch from one mode to another as they wish.

Mattel’s announcement was also accompanied by a survey that offered a glimpse into some of the ways British consumers have previously tackled classic Scrabble. London-based market researcher Opinion Matters found that 75% of U.K. adults aged 25 to 34 have searched a word when playing the board-and-tile game to check if it’s real. And almost half (49%) reported trying to make up a new word in hopes of winning.

Whether the new version will expand beyond Europe one day remains to be seen.

While Mattel, which is based in El Segundo, California, owns the rights to Scrabble around much of the world, Hasbro licenses the game in the U.S., for example.

“Mattel and Hasbro have worked separately to develop different versions of Scrabble every year,” Silver said. As a result, some versions are only available in certain countries, creating an “interesting dynamic” for avid fans of the game, he added.

A spokesperson for Hasbro, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, confirmed to The Associated Press via email Tuesday that the company currently has no plans for a U.S. update — but added that the brand “love[s] the idea of different ways to play Scrabble and continue[s] to attract new players to the game around the world.”

Scrabble’s origins date back to 1931, when American architect Alfred Mosher Butts invented the game’s forerunner. Scrabble’s original name was “Lexiko,” according to a Mattel factsheet, and before officially getting the Scrabble title and trademark in 1948, Butts’ creation was also called “Criss-Crosswords,” “It” and “Alph.”

Today, Scrabble is produced in 28 different languages. More than 165 million games have been sold in 120 countries around the world since 1948, according to Mattel, with an average of 1.5 million games sold globally each year.

Beyond the decades-old Scrabble fanbase, other word games have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, including Bananagrams and online guessing game Wordle.

US newsman who created no-frills PBS newscast dies

new york — Robert MacNeil, who created the even-handed, no-frills PBS newscast “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” in the 1970s and co-anchored the show with his late partner, Jim Lehrer, for two decades, died on Friday. He was 93. 

MacNeil died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to his daughter, Alison MacNeil. 

MacNeil first gained prominence for his coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings for the public broadcasting service and began his half-hour “Robert MacNeil Report” on PBS in 1975 with his friend Lehrer as Washington correspondent. 

The broadcast became the “MacNeil-Lehrer Report” and then, in 1983, was expanded to an hour and renamed the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.” The nation’s first one-hour evening news broadcast, and recipient of several Emmy and Peabody awards, it remains on the air today with Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz as anchors. 

It was MacNeil’s and Lehrer’s disenchantment with the style and content of rival news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC that led to the program’s creation. 

“We don’t need to SELL the news,” MacNeil told the Chicago Tribune in 1983. “The networks hype the news to make it seem vital, important. What’s missing [in 22 minutes] is context, sometimes balance, and a consideration of questions that are raised by certain events.” 

MacNeil left anchoring duties at “NewsHour” after two decades in 1995 to write full time. Lehrer took over the newscast alone, and he remained there until 2009. Lehrer died in 2020. 

When MacNeil visited the show in October 2005 to commemorate its 30th anniversary, he reminisced about how their newscast started in the days before cable television. 

“It was a way to do something that seemed to be needed journalistically and yet was different from what the commercial network news (programs) were doing,” he said. 

Wrote memoirs, novels

MacNeil wrote several books, including two memoirs “The Right Place at the Right Time” and the best seller “Wordstruck,” and the novels “Burden of Desire” and “The Voyage.” 

“Writing is much more personal. It is not collaborative in the way that television must be,” MacNeil told The Associated Press in 1995. “But when you’re sitting down writing a novel, it’s just you: Here’s what I think, here’s what I want to do. And it’s me.” 

MacNeil also created the Emmy-winning 1986 series “The Story of English,” with the MacNeil-Lehrer production company, and was co-author of the companion book of the same name. 

Another book on language that he co-wrote, “Do You Speak American?,” was adapted into a PBS documentary in 2005. 

Explored post 9/11 challenges

In 2007, he served as host of “America at a Crossroads,” a six-night PBS package exploring challenges confronting the United States in a post-9/11 world. 

Six years before the 9/11 attacks, discussing sensationalism and frivolity in the news business, he had said: “If something really serious did happen to the nation — a stock market crash like 1929, … the equivalent of a Pearl Harbor — wouldn’t the news get very serious again? Wouldn’t people run from `Hard Copy’ and titillation?” 

“Of course you would. You’d have to know what was going on.” 

That was the case — for a while. 

Born in Montreal in 1931, MacNeil was raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa in 1955 before moving to London where he began his journalism career with Reuters. He switched to TV news in 1960, taking a job with NBC in London as a foreign correspondent. 

In 1963, MacNeil was transferred to NBC’s Washington bureau, where he reported on Civil Rights and the White House. He covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and spent most of 1964 following the presidential campaign between Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and Republican Barry Goldwater. 

In 1965, MacNeil became the New York anchor of the first half-hour weekend network news broadcast, “The Scherer-MacNeil Report” on NBC. While in New York, he also anchored local newscasts and several NBC news documentaries, including “The Big Ear” and “The Right to Bear Arms.” 

MacNeil returned to London in 1967 as a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp.’s “Panorama” series. While with the BBC, be covered such U.S. stories as the clash between anti-war demonstrators and the Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the funerals of the Reverand Martin Luther King Jr., Senator Robert Kennedy and President Dwight Eisenhower. 

In 1971, MacNeil left the BBC to become a senior correspondent for PBS, where he teamed up with Lehrer to co-anchor public television’s Emmy-winning coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. 

Judge orders Ohtani’s ex-interpreter to get gambling addiction treatment

LOS ANGELES — A federal judge Friday ordered the former longtime interpreter for Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani released on $25,000 bond and mandated he undergo gambling addiction treatment.

Ippei Mizuhara exploited his personal and professional relationship with Ohtani to plunder $16 million from the Major League Baseball player’s bank account for years, prosecutors said, at times impersonating Ohtani to bankers so he could cover his bets and debts.

Mizuhara only spoke to answer the judge’s questions, saying “yes” when she asked if he understood several parts of the case and his bond conditions.

Mizuhara, wearing a dark suit and a white collared shirt, entered the courtroom with his ankles shackled, but was not handcuffed. The judge approved his attorney’s request to remove the shackles.

Other bond conditions stipulate that Mizuhara cannot gamble, either electronically or in person, or go inside any gambling establishments, or associate with any known bookmakers.

Mizuhara turned himself in Friday ahead of his initial court appearance. He is charged with one count of bank fraud and faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors said there was no evidence that Ohtani was involved in or aware of Mizuhara’s gambling, and authorities said Ohtani was cooperating with investigators.

Mizuhara was not asked to enter a plea during Friday’s brief court appearance in downtown Los Angeles. A criminal complaint filed Thursday detailed the alleged scheme through evidence that included text messages, financial records and recordings of phone calls.

While Mizuhara’s winning bets totaled over $142 million, which he deposited in his own bank account and not Ohtani’s, his losing bets were around $183 million — a net loss of nearly $41 million.

In a message to his illegal bookmaker on March 20, the day the Los Angeles Times and ESPN broke the news of the federal investigation, Mizuhara wrote: “Technically I did steal from him. It’s all over for me.”

Major League Baseball opened its own investigation after the controversy surfaced, and the Dodgers immediately fired Mizuhara.

US: China strengthens Russian war machine with surging equipment sales

WASHINGTON — China has surged sales to Russia of machine tools, microelectronics and other technology that Moscow in turn is using to produce missiles, tanks, aircraft and other weaponry for use in its war against Ukraine, according to a U.S. assessment.

Two senior Biden administration officials, who discussed the sensitive findings Friday on the condition of anonymity, said that in 2023 about 90% of Russia’s microelectronics came from China. Russia has used those to make missiles, tanks and aircraft. Nearly 70% of Russia’s approximately $900 million in machine tool imports in the last quarter of 2023 came from China.

Chinese and Russian entities have also been working to jointly produce unmanned aerial vehicles inside Russia, and Chinese companies are likely providing Russia with the nitrocellulose used in the manufacture of ammunition, the officials said. China-based companies Wuhan Global Sensor Technology Company, Wuhan Tongsheng Technology Company and Hikvision are providing optical components for use in Russian tanks and armored vehicles.

The officials said that Russia has received military optics for use in tanks and armored vehicles manufactured by Chinese firms iRay Technology and North China Research Institute of Electro-Optics, and that China has been providing Russia with UAV engines and turbojet engines for cruise missiles.

Russia’s semiconductor imports from China jumped from $200 million in 2021 to over $500 million in 2022, according to Russian customs data analyzed by the Free Russia Foundation, a group that advocates for civil society development.

Beijing is also working with Russia to improve its satellite and other space-based capabilities for use in Ukraine, a development the officials say could in the longer term increase the threat Russia poses across Europe. The officials, citing downgraded intelligence findings, said the U.S. has also determined that China is providing imagery to Russia for its war on Ukraine.

The officials discussed the findings as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China this month for talks. Blinken is scheduled to travel next week to the Group of 7 foreign ministers meeting in Capri, Italy, where he’s expected to raise concerns about China’s growing indirect support for Russia as Moscow revamps its military and looks to consolidate recent gains in Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden has previously raised concerns directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping about Beijing indirectly supporting Russia’s war effort.

While China has not provided direct lethal military support for Russia, it has backed it diplomatically in blaming the West for provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch the war and refrained from calling it an invasion in deference to the Kremlin.

China has repeatedly said it isn’t providing Russia with arms or military assistance, although it has maintained robust economic connections with Moscow, alongside India and other countries, amid sanctions from Washington and its allies.

“The normal trade between China and Russia should not be interfered or restricted,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “We urge the U.S. side to refrain from disparaging and scapegoating the normal relationship between China and Russia.”

Xi met in Beijing on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who heaped praise on Xi’s leadership.

Russia’s growing economic and diplomatic isolation has made it increasingly reliant on China, its former rival for leadership of the Communist bloc during the Cold War.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who returned to Washington this week from a visit to Beijing, said she warned Chinese officials that the Biden administration was prepared to sanction Chinese banks, companies and Beijing’s leadership if they assist Russia’s armed forces with its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Biden issued an executive order in December giving Yellen the authority to sanction financial institutions that aided Russia’s military-industrial complex.

“We continue to be concerned about the role that any firms, including those in the PRC, are playing in Russia’s military procurement,” Yellen told reporters, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China. “I stressed that companies, including those in the PRC, must not provide material support for Russia’s war and that they will face significant consequences if they do. And I reinforced that any banks that facilitate significant transactions that channel military or dual-use goods to Russia’s defense industrial base expose themselves to the risk of U.S. sanctions.”

The United States has frequently downgraded and unveiled intelligence findings about Russia’s plans and operations over the course of the war with Ukraine, which has been fought for more than two years.

Such efforts have been focused on highlighting plans for Russian misinformation operations or to throw attention on Moscow’s difficulties in prosecuting its war against Ukraine as well as its coordination with Iran and North Korea to supply it with badly needed weaponry. Blinken last year spotlighted intelligence that showed China was considering providing arms and ammunition to Russia.

The White House believes that the public airing of the intelligence findings has led China, at least for now, to hold off on directly arming Russia. China’s economy has also been slow to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese officials could be sensitive to reaction from European capitals, which have maintained closer ties to Beijing even as the U.S.-China relationship has become more complicated.

US House passes controversial surveillance bill on 4th attempt

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted to reauthorize a controversial surveillance program Friday, in a major step toward keeping a key element of the United States’ foreign intelligence-gathering operation in place.

The House passed a bill reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in a 273-147 vote. The FISA bill now moves to the Senate, which is expected to give it bipartisan approval. Without congressional action, the program will expire on April 19.

Approval came after the duration of the bill was changed to two years from a previous version of five years, as some Republicans had sought.

FISA has attracted criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who argue it violates Americans’ constitutional right to privacy. The bill was blocked three times in the past five months by House Republicans bucking their party.

 

The White House, intelligence chiefs and top lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have warned of potentially catastrophic effects of not reauthorizing the program, which was first created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The reauthorization was thwarted earlier this week when House Republicans refused to support the bill House Speaker Mike Johnson had put forward, which fell short of the changes they wanted.  

“We will go blind on April 19” without the program, Representative Mike Turner, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters Wednesday.

Although the right to privacy is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the data of foreign nationals gathered by the program often includes communications with Americans and can be mined by domestic law enforcement bodies such as the FBI without a warrant.  

That has alarmed both hardline Republicans and far-left Democrats. Recent revelations that the FBI used this power to hunt for information about Black Lives Matter protesters, congressional campaign donors and U.S. lawmakers have raised further doubts about the program’s integrity.

A key issue has been an amendment which would require domestic law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before searching the database. Executive branch officials argue that such a change would undermine the program’s utility for agencies such as the FBI.

The amendment barely failed in a 212-212 vote ahead of the vote on the bill’s final passage.