Ambassador Baucus Press Conference on Visas and Open Doors

Man speaking to crowd. (Embassy Image)Ambassador Max Baucus
Press Conference
November 18, 2014

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Thank you all very much and again good afternoon and welcome to everybody.

Americans and Chinese have a saying in common.  That is the more the better.  When it comes to education and travel nothing could be more true.

This afternoon I am very pleased to announce that the number of Chinese students in the United States has once again set a new record.  According to the 2014 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, almost 275,000 Chinese students studied in the United States last year.  That’s an increase of almost 39,000 students from the year before.

China again tops the list of countries sending students to the United States.  The number of Chinese students in the United States has grown now for the past ten years in a row.  For Americans, China remains one of the top five destinations for Americans studying abroad.  President Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative announced in 2009 encourages more American students to study in China.  Open Doors reports that almost 14,500 American students studied in China in 2012 and 2013.  And this past summer we reached the goal of 100,000 American students in China.

I personally know how important it is to study and travel abroad.  In fact my time abroad when I was a student was one of the driving forces in my decision to go into public service.  Frankly, I spent six months studying abroad in France, then I spent another one year with a knapsack on my back and a hand bag and I hitchhiked around the world for one year.  So that was another additional year of my study abroad in addition to the six months going to school in France.

That study abroad changed my life.  It’s why I’m here today, standing before you at this moment, serving as United States Ambassador to China.  It was that trip – that overseas education, traveling abroad – which was the life-forming change in my life and the reason why I’m here standing before you at this moment.

So I cannot over-emphasize the importance of travel. I cannot over-emphasize enough the importance of Chinese students going abroad.  Obviously we want Chinese students to go to America and for American students to go abroad too so American students can learn.  It is probably one of the most rewarding times in a person’s life – studying abroad. I cannot over-emphasize its importance.

One thing makes all this travel possible and all these life-changing experiences possible.  What’s that?  It’s visas.

Our two countries reached several important agreements last week when President Obama visited China.  Many very important decisions were made which very dramatically advanced the goal of our two nations cooperating.

On the list was an agreement on addressing climate change.  Second, there was an information technology agreement.  Third, there were mil-to-mil agreements.  Those are all extremely important.  But there’s another matter which we agreed on and frankly I think it’s in many ways as important as the other three.  The fourth, which is as important, and not given enough attention in my judgment, is both countries agreed to increase the visa validity for students, for business travelers, and for tourists.

This isn’t just a new policy.  It affirms how far our relations have come over the past 35 years.  So here are the facts of that landmark agreement.

There are reciprocal changes in visa validities for tourists, business people, and students.  These changes extend visa validity from one to ten years for tourists and business people and to five years for students.  This is the most important change in our consular relationship with China since we established diplomatic relations 35 years ago.

What exactly do these changes mean?

First, regular visitors to the United States doing business, seeing family, or visiting our spectacular national parks and great cities, won’t need to apply for a new visa every year.  Not only is this more convenient, it also saves a lot of money.  The visa fee has not changed.  And Chinese students who want to visit home during school breaks won’t need a new visa.  Last year more than 1.8 million Chinese citizens visited the United States and we want to see those numbers grow.

As China’s economy develops and as more people travel between both countries, our governments need to adjust our policies as well, and that’s just what we’re doing.

As President Obama said last week during his visit, longer validity visas will encourage more exchanges among our students.  The United States will continue to welcome ever more Chinese students.  And the 100,000 Strong Initiative together with extended visa validity will encourage even more American students to study in China.

So I’m proud to be part of this historic moment.  What we’re talking about today is not just about numbers or policies, it’s about the important investment that peoples of both our countries are making in their future whether as students, business people or travelers.  I want to see that investment keep growing.

Before we take your questions let me introduce our Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs, Mr. Chuck Bennett in the center there; and our Counselor for Cultural Affairs, Ms. Lisa Heller off to your far right; and of course you know Nolan Barkhouse behind me on your left.

We’re all here to help answer your questions about visas, exchanges, and our Education USA program.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador Baucus.  Maybe we’ll start by asking someone here in Beijing to ask the first question.

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  He is from Southern Metropolitan Daily. His question is that when the new validity comes into force will it change how strict the interviews will be for Chinese applicants?

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  No change.  Basically the procedure will be the same.  If you compare the questions that an immigration officer of the United States might ask a person who had a one-year visa under the old system, compared with this new one, where a tourist for example, on a ten-year visa, when that Chinese person with a ten-year visa visits and talks to the American immigration officer, the questions will be the same.  There’s no change.  That’s a decision we made, how long that person can stay in the United States.  The only difference is that after a Chinese citizen returns back to China, then that Chinese citizen does not have to get a new visa to go back to the United States for ten years, which means it’s more convenient for Chinese students.  It means it’s less expensive for a Chinese person because it’s a ten-year visa as opposed to a one-year visa.

But to answer your direct question, the procedures will be the same.  It’s just a matter of convenience and it’s less expensive.  But otherwise the regulations applying to how long a person can stay in country under a tourist visa or a student visa will be the same.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador.  I’m from Future Magazine and my name is Wang Yanjie .

My question is, how is the embassy going to improve the time students and tourists will wait in line at the embassy if this policy is going to be effective with more and more students and Chinese residents going to apply for their visa?

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  Number one, I think it’s important to keep all this in context and look at the good news.  The good news is that this is a great opportunity for more American students and more American tourists to come to China because the visa validity will be longer and the same for Chinese tourists and business people and students going to America to visit.  The validity — it’s reciprocal.  Both sides are extending validities.  It’s a great opportunity for more travel for tourists, small business people, business people generally, and students.  It’s a great opportunity.  That’s I think something that needs to be addressed.

But to get to your specific question, we’ve done our very best to try to anticipate the extra workload.  In fact when we were negotiating the change with China, extending the validity periods, this was very much on our mind — how can we be sure we have enough resources, enough personnel to make sure that we could deal with the additional number of Chinese citizens who want to apply.  We hope we have it covered.  We’ve done our best to anticipate that.  I’ll have Mr. Bennett, in a second when we finish the translation, give you a more specific answer.

MR. BENNETT:  I’ll just mention a few things.  As I think many of you know over the last several years we’ve taken many steps in China to help the visa process become more efficient and be faster for Chinese travelers to the United States.  We’ve increased our staff significantly, we’ve improved our facilities across China, we have changed some of our policies so now it’s easier for people who have previous visas to renew their visas.  And we’re always looking at new ways to help make that process more efficient.  And we’re very proud that over the last three years or so we’ve been able to keep the wait times for an appointment down to about five days on average.

But I think as you probably expect, we expect this to be very popular among Chinese travelers.  So we’re already looking at increasing our staffing a little bit more.  We expect that there will be an increase over the short term in the number of people applying for visas and we’ll be increasing our staffing.  But I think in the longer term because the visas are longer, we will expect to see the growth to be a little bit more moderate.

MODERATOR:  Would somebody in Guangzhou like to ask a question?

QUESTION:  Thank you Mr. Ambassador.  I’m Audrey with Guangdong TV.

My question is, it is reported that the number of Chinese students enrolling in U.S. graduate school has fallen for the first time in a decade.  So what reason do you think that is?  Does it have anything to do with China’s anti-corruption campaign?  And it is reported that U.S. graduate schools have been raising the thresholds of applications.  Meanwhile reducing  scholarships.  Is that true?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  I’m not sure if I understand the question except to say that — can you repeat the question please?

QUESTION:  Sure.  Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.  Audrey with Guangdong TV.

My question is that it is reported that the number of Chinese students enrolling in U.S. graduate schools has fallen for the first time in a decade.  What reason do you think that is?  Do you think it has anything to do with China’s anti-corruption campaign?  And it is reported that U.S. graduate schools have been raising the thresholds of student applications.  Meanwhile they don’t see the scholarships.  Is that true?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  Well, I’m unaware of that change, but let me turn to Lisa Heller.  She may have some information.

MS. HELLER:  Actually, that’s not what our statistics show.
In the report that was just released yesterday we showed over the last two years that Chinese graduate students in U.S. graduate schools increased by almost 12 percent, 11.8 percent, from 103,000 to 115,000.  There have been some press reports that they have decreased, but those are studies that are using a different methodology.  The figures that we were announcing today are the most complete and the most reliable that the U.S. government has, so we are actually seeing continued increased interest in American graduate study in the United States.

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  I might say in addition to that, I would expect American universities to want to continue to attract and enroll more Chinese students, undergraduate and graduate.  Not fewer, but more.  That’s very much my impression of U.S. colleges and universities.  I very much appreciate the enrollment of Chinese students in America.  There’s no policy whatsoever — whether at universities or by the government — to in any way restrict Chinese applicants or Chinese students, graduate or undergraduate in America.  My impression would be just the opposite.  We want to encourage more, not fewer.  More.

MODERATOR:  Chengdu?  Would somebody like to ask a question?

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  This reporter is from Tianfu Morning Daily in Chengdu.  Her question is, it is said the holder of a U.S. visa can be waivered of visas at many other countries.  Is that true?  And if so, is there an increase of countries being able to have visas for Chinese tourists?

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  There are countries that are so-called visa waiver countries.  That’s true.  But I’ll let Mr. Bennett answer the question.  But the same restrictions basically apply.

MR. BENNETT:  If I understand the question correctly, there are many countries that U.S. citizens can travel to without a visa.  As the Ambassador mentioned, there are some countries, I think 38 countries that the U.S. allows their citizens to come to the U.S. without a visa.  But most countries require some sort of a visa for their citizens to travel back and forth to the country.

So these things are handled in a bilateral way and in the negotiations we carried out with the Chinese government we reached agreement to issue ten-year visas for tourists and business people and five-year visas for students.  So it’s really a bilateral agreement that countries enter into and it’s the decision of those countries to decide whether or not the validity of the visa will be five years or ten years.  So we’re very happy that we were able to reach this agreement with the Chinese government.

Ten years, by the way, is the maximum length of visas that the U.S. can legally issue.  So now Chinese citizens are getting the very maximum length of visas that our government allows for anybody.

MODERATOR:  Maybe somebody from Wuhan would like to ask a question?

QUESTION:  Good afternoon everyone.  Good afternoon Mr. Ambassador.  I’m going to ask the question in English on behalf of Mr. He  from Pivot Magazine.

He is curious, now that these visas are going to be for up to ten years maximum, do we anticipate in the future any lessening of the requirements for the application process?  Or will everything remain the same, including the fees?  Do we anticipate the fees will go down in the future?  Or will they remain the same?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  I think the answer basically is that the visa will remain the same, the requirements will remain the same.  But that’s something the United States has got to look at should there be any change in requirements.

The main news here is the extension from one year to ten, for tourists, and one to five for students.  It’s a major step forward.

From my perspective, as I said in my opening remarks, this is another example of how our two countries are working together. We reached other agreements last week, such as President Obama’s and President Xi’s agreements on the climate and information technology, these confidence-building measures, and our mil-mil relationships.  But here’s another one, it’s extending the [inaudible] very significantly.  It’s a major step forward.  We’re continuing to take steps forward and this is a big step forward of which I’m very proud.

MODERATOR:  Next, if we can invite someone from Shenyang to ask a question?

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  This reporter is from Shenyang Huashang Morning News and her question is: we all know that America has the best universities in the world and Chinese students have topped the list of foreign students studying in America and it keeps rising.  And after the change of the visa validity the number of Chinese students is going to continue to rise.  It’s been reported that in some universities the number of Chinese students have already passed the number of American students.  What do you think about that?

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  We are very proud of our universities in the United States.  I also am very proud of students worldwide, wherever they may be. They work hard, are industrious, ambitious, and want to go to the best universities.  I take my hat off to anybody that works hard, tries to do a good job.  And I’m very very impressed with Chinese students.  The ones I’ve met are very smart.

I can’t confirm those numbers. In fact I’d be surprised if there are any universities where there are more Chinese students than Americans.  I think that’s unlikely.  But I am impressed with Chinese students and students anyplace in the world that want to go to the best universities and we’re going to do our very best to make sure we maintain the same high quality that we have in the past.

I’m very impressed with a lot of universities that I’ve come across here in China.  I’ve been at many universities here in China which are very good, first rate.  But the purpose of the announcement today is to announce extensions of visa validity which means we’re trying to encourage students in both countries to travel to the other country.  It’s very important to learn more about the other country’s culture, to learn other subjects, and to very much help enhance understanding between our two countries.  It’s extremely important.

MODERATOR:  Would someone from Shanghai like to ask a question?

QUESTION:  Hello.  I am from Shanghai Daily and my name is [Inaudible].

Actually I have several questions.  The first question is —

MODERATOR:  I think we’re going to try to go with one question right now.

QUESTION:  How many Chinese citizens have received the ten-year visas by now?

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  You can ask your questions.

QUESTION:  Are there any limitations on visa numbers each year?  And are there any requirements for the ten-year visa applicants?  Do you have any criteria to decide which applicants can get the long term visas while those cannot?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  I only suggest you ask a many part question because at the press conference a few days ago between President Obama and President Xi, although the American reporter was only allowed one question he asked five questions during his one question.  [Laughter].  So I give very strong encouragement to all enterprising reporters.

First question, I don’t know the answer.  We’re just beginning, we’ve just begun this process a short time ago.  Maybe Minister Counselor Bennett could give you a more precise number.

MR. BENNETT:  We started issuing ten-year visas on November 12th and today is November 18th, so I would imagine we’ve already issued several thousand ten-year visas.  I don’t know exactly, but I’m sure it’s several thousand anyway.

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  Yeah, we just started.  We have to get the numbers.

I don’t know if I precisely remember your other two questions.  Could you ask those two questions once more please?

QUESTION:  The question is, are there any limitations on receiving numbers each year for these long-term visas?

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  No.  No restrictions.

QUESTION:  Are there any requirements for the long-term visa applicants?  Do you have any criteria to decide which kind of applicant can receive them?

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  The process is the same.  A person gets a ten-year visa, and then that person as a tourist goes to the United States, and the United States immigration officials can determine the length of time the person can stay in the United States.  That does not change.  Customarily from six months, there’s some flexibility there.  But, nothing changes.  Current new practices are the same as past practices with respect to what the requirements are.

Two final points.  First is this: I encourage Chinese students and parents to use the free and unbiased information of our embassy’s office called Education USA here in China.  It’s free, it’s unbiased.  There are a lot of people who have helped guide parents and applicants and students, they’ve helped decide which universities to go to and how to best arrange their education in the United States.  It’s a great opportunity and I encourage people to take advantage it.  We’ll give you information about the web site.  We’ll get the information to you.

Finally, I’ll make a plea that as many Chinese citizens, Chinese students as possible go overseas.  Travel, go to school, just travel, learn about the United States, learn about other countries.  Just travel while you have the opportunity.

The most informative year in my life – more than anything else I’ve done – was during that 18 months.  I went to school six months and traveled. I hitchhiked around the world with a knapsack through Europe, Africa, Asia, and Hong Kong very briefly many years ago.  But it will open up so many new opportunities.  You’ll see so many new ways for you to accomplish your objectives and learn what kind of life you want to live. I strongly support it.  I don’t care what your parents say. I don’t care what your teachers say.  I don’t care what anybody says.  You just do it.

MODERATOR:  With that we will end this phase.

Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Chuck Bennett and Counselor for Education and Cultural Affairs Lisa Heller will remain here and we can answer a few more specific questions if anyone has any remaining questions.

AMBASSADOR BAUCUS:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  I’m from CCTV.  My question is after this extension of visa validity whether it will change any other procedure of the visa application, especially the interview process?  Because I personally have been rejected a visa to the United States and my question is whether you would continue to keep this rate objection of the visa objection of the [inaudible].

MR. BENNETT:  I’m sorry to hear that you were not successful in getting a visa.  But I think it’s important to know that you’re – or maybe you don’t want to know this – you’re in a small minority of people who do not get visas.  Across China about 90 percent of all the people who come in to apply for visas get their visas.  It’s important to remember that what we’re looking at when we determine if you’re qualified for a visa are your circumstances when you’re applying, and we know that your circumstances change.  So maybe if you didn’t have a job before and now you’re working, or your other circumstances have changed, it’s very possible that you could now qualify for a visa whereas before you could not.

But as the Ambassador mentioned, the laws have not changed and our policies have not changed.  So those things are all remaining the same even though we’re now issuing longer term visas.

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  He added that he finally got a visa to the U.S.

MR. BENNETT:  I’m glad.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, this is Kathy Wong from Global Times.

You have probably issued about a thousand issues in the past week and do you have the number of applications you have received since last week?  And do you have an estimate of increasing numbers annually in the years to come?

MR. BENNETT:  I think we probably have issued many thousands, not just one thousand, but maybe even ten.  I don’t know.  I have some of my colleagues in the room.  I don’t know if anybody else has a better guess.

We typically, in China, during this time of the year, we will process anywhere from about five to seven thousand visas every day.  And in the summer it’s even more than that.  So I’m guessing that we’ve already issued many tens of thousands of visas.

The second part of your question, the numbers of people applying for visas in China have been growing pretty dramatically over the last several years.  Last year I think it was about 21 or 22 percent compared to the year before.  And we expect that that will continue and that will grow probably because of these new policies.

QUESTION:  Will there probably be more than 20 percent?

MR. BENNETT:  I expect it will be more than 20 percent, yes.

MODERATOR:  Chengdu, it looks like you might have another question please.

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  I’m from Chongqing Morning [Inaudible] Post.
We heard that not everyone can get the ten-year visa.
It’s decided by the visa officer whether you can get this extended visa validity or not.  We’d like to confirm whether it’s true.  If it’s true, what kind of circumstances decide whether you get this visa or not?

MR. BENNETT:  We expect that the vast, vast majority of people who apply for visas, these types of visas, will get ten-year visas.  There might be a very small number of people who because of their particular circumstances will not, but I think the numbers of people who do get the ten-year visas will be a very large majority of everybody.

MODERATOR:  Guangzhou, did you have another question you want to ask?

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  He is from Guangzhou, Southern Metropolitan Daily.  His question is what’s the difference between the duration of stay for the B1/B2 visa, between the duration of stay and the visa validity?  Does that mean that if I get a six-month duration in the United States I can stay there for six months, come back to China and get a new visa right away and go back to the United States?

MR. BENNETT:  The visa and the duration of stay are two different things.

The visa that you get from us here at the embassy or in Guangzhou at the consulate or at any of our other consulates, allows you to get on an airplane and travel to the United States and go to the immigration officer at the airport and seek entry into the United States.

The immigration officer will determine how long you can actually stay in the United States.  Often that amount of time is six months, but that can vary also depending on your circumstances.

So if you go for six months and you leave for a day and you go back and you want to stay for another six months they might say that’s okay, but they might ask you why you are spending so much time in the United States.  And if they believe you’re doing something that’s not appropriate for your visa category, for example if you’re working which you’re not supposed to do on a tourist visa, than they can actually deny your entry into the United States.

So it’s best to know the rules and to follow them carefully.  That’s true not only for the United States, but that’s true for Americans traveling to China or for any country.  We all have our immigration rules and our policies and it’s really important that you know what those are and you follow them.

MODERATOR:  We’re close to the end of time.  I think most of you picked up a couple of important pieces of paper when you came in.  The two most important ones I think for all of you are the question and answer about the extending of the short term visas.  This is very helpful for you.  It’s also on our web site.  Also there is a press release.  This one also has a lot of the details in it that you can use if you’re interested.

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  She is from China News Service.  Her question is in the past year it’s been reported that Canada is trying to restrict monthly immigrants from China to Canada, and thus America has or may become the next popular destination for Chinese immigrants.  With this extended visa validity, maybe the pressure will be off the United States as the destination for Chinese immigrants.  Is that a consideration during the negotiations between China and the United States?

MR. BENNETT:  I can’t answer the question about Canada.  You’d have to ask the Canadian embassy about that.

This agreement really didn’t, we really didn’t touch on immigration.  We have different policies and laws for people who want to immigrate to the United States.  What we’re talking about here are short-term visas, people who want to visit or go to school and whose purpose of travel is not permanent immigration.

MR. BENNETT:  This agreement and these two types of travelers from China to the U.S. that the Ambassador talked about – there are 1.8 million Chinese citizens going to America every year.  This covers 97 percent of all those people.  So that helps you understand that this was focused on how to help the most people in the two countries travel between the countries.

So this one is for the short-term business and tourism travelers, and then for the students.  That makes up 97 percent of all of the Chinese who traveled to America.

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  Her question is that Chinese students are the largest number of foreign students in America and the U.S. government values Chinese students more and more nowadays.  As part of the U.S. government’s Education USA, does Education USA have any plans for bringing out new policies aimed at Chinese students?

MS. HELLER:  Yes, the U.S. does see China has great potential for increasing educational exchanges and we do have a program called Education USA which as the Ambassador said is aimed at helping Chinese students make the best choices and find the best educational opportunities in the U.S. for them.

We have a pretty substantial presence here in China but we are expanding.  We are adding new people.  We are spreading out more to the consulates in the other cities so you’ll see even more programs from them in the coming years. And I’m going to take this opportunity to introduce the person who heads that office, Erik Black over here.  After this press conference you can get even more details from him about all the wonderful things that program is doing.

QUESTION:  [Through Interpreter].  I’m from Elite Reference.  My question is we heard that the vast majority of applicants will get the ten-year validity visa for tourism, but will all students, or the majority of students, be able to get the maximum five-year visa or will it depend on something else?

MR. BENNETT:  There are different types of student and exchange visas for students who are going into academic programs.  Most of them will be getting five-year visas.

For exchange programs — we call them J1 visas for exchange –those are limited to the amount of time of the actual program.  So if the program is a one-year program, you’ll get a one-year visa.  If it’s a four-year program you’ll get a four-year visa.  That’s the distinction between the two.

It’s important to remember that if you’re a foreign student, a Chinese student or any other foreign student in the U.S., that if you have a student visa and you’re there on a student visa you have to be studying.  You have to be enrolled in school.  So it doesn’t mean that you can stay there for two or three years and do something else.  If you want to do that then you have to leave the U.S. or you have to get a different type of visa that allows you to do whatever you might want to do.  So you have to be enrolled in school and studying during that period of time.

MODERATOR:  Thank you everyone for joining us today.  I hope this was helpful to you.  Obviously we’re very excited about these new developments.  So thank you and we look forward to working with you again soon.