BEIJING — Shaken by the shooting deaths of two Chinese students near the University of Southern California, China is unlikely to slow its pace of sending its students to U.S. universities.
The deaths of USC graduate students Qu Ming and Wu Ying, both 23, this week in what police suspect was a bungled carjacking came amid a big jump in the number of Chinese pursuing higher education in the U.S.
Much of that has been made possible by China's economic growth, which has produced a richer generation of students. But they have also grown up carefully protected by their parents and possibly not as well equipped to handle the cultural challenges in a country so distinctly different from China.
China sent nearly 160,000 students to U.S. universities last year, more than four times the number 15 years ago and more than any other country, according to the U.S.-based Institute of International Education. Chinese students account for nearly 22 percent of international students, who contribute more than $21 billion to the U.S. economy through tuition and living expenses.
Chinese families hold U.S. education in high regard and are trying to give their children an edge in China's fiercely competitive job market. They are ambivalent about China's education system, which relies on rote learning and has many problems such as plagiarism, even by professors.
That has resulted in a thriving industry serving students eager to study overseas. Students can pay thousands of dollars for prep schools and courses to cram for the SATs and graduate school exams. They also can pay consulting firms to guide them throughout the college application process.
Zhou Rong, a senior consultant working for New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting, said the new generation of Chinese students – many growing up in one-child households – often lack life skills such as knowing how to rent an apartment and how to exercise caution.
"The students are usually unaware of safety issues. They are not trained to live independently," Zhou said. "That's because Chinese parents usually want their children to focus on nothing but schoolwork."
Her company had made plans before the shooting for a safety workshop for U.S.-bound students. "This will sound an alarm," Zhou said of the Los Angeles shooting.
Chinese parents, students and education consultants said Thursday they think the shooting near USC, the university with the largest international student presence in the U.S., was isolated.
One parent, Wu Qing, said that although she is worried, her 18-year-old son will continue his studies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.
"He wants to study abroad to develop himself, and we are supportive of that," said Wu, a college teacher in Beijing.
Liu Bo, a student at Peking University, said the shooting will not change his plan to study abroad, likely in a few years. "Probably I will be careful. Maybe my family will be more concerned."
Education consultants who advise Chinese students on studying abroad said the huge jump in the Chinese student population in the United States has increased the chances of one of them getting caught up in a tragedy such as the shooting and in more mundane things such as traffic accidents.
"The probability (for accidents) is higher," said He Lianshui, a consultant for Beijing-based US Visa Dream.
"As long as the attack was not targeted at Chinese, it will not slow the trend of Chinese students wanting to study in the United States," He said.
The murders were reported on state television, with CCTV's all-news channel repeatedly playing a report from Los Angeles with its reporter examining the crime scene and showing a door handle with a bloody smudge, reportedly from Qu when he fled for help.
On China's social media sites, speculation swirled that the two students were from affluent families because they were in a BMW at the time of the shooting. The Chinese public is acutely sensitive to a widening gap between rich and poor.
That speculation caused anger among Chinese students back at USC, who denounced the online portrayal of the victims as indifferent rich students, according to a report by Neon Tommy, a news website sponsored by USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.