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China’s international students under pressure as economic uncertainty looms

When Xiao Zhang went to the U.S. to study in 2019, she never expected that she would one day have to look for odd jobs to help fund her college fees.

The 24-year-old Chinese student is currently studying design in an undergraduate program at a university in Alabama. Her parents have so far spent 1.5 million Chinese yuan, or about $211,500, to fund her overseas studies and living expenses.

But in October last year, her parents told her they were facing cash flow problems and could no longer offer her financial support. At that point, Zhang had enough money just to cover three months of rent. She still needed to pay the tuition fees for one more semester, she said, without specifying the amount.

Zhang is hardly alone. Her experience has become increasingly common.

Since last year, there have been over 4.58 million views with the hashtag "funding for overseas studies cut off" on social media platform "Xiaohongshu," often seen as China's Instagram. As a growing number of overseas Chinese students run into financial difficulties due to the declining wealth of their families, many have gone online to express their struggles and seek advice on how to cope with the situation.

A 2023 survey conducted by New Oriental Education and Kantar shows that among the students and parents intending to pursue postgraduate degrees abroad, 27% of them said their funding plans have been impacted by the pandemic. That's far higher than the 19% who said the same in 2021 and 2022.

"I didn't have time to feel sad because I needed to make money to pay for my tuition fees and rent as soon as possible," Zhang told CNBC in Mandarin.

Zhang's father invested in the pharmaceutical industry during the Covid-19 pandemic but has since incurred huge losses. He saw