Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in print March 8. It has been updated to include more information and viewpoints from more sources.
The trade war between the United States and Chinese governments is making Rainier Junior and High School students’ annual trip to China more difficult and more expensive, said Rainier Superintendent Michael Carter.
“Any time there’s tension and you raise alert status, that makes people nervous about travel,” Carter said.
Kim Oblack, the vice principal for Rainier Junior and High School, is taking her ninth-grade daughter on the trip this year, a first for both of them. Oblack said it took “a couple of months going back and forth” to get all documentation in order — a process she said usually takes a few weeks.
Oblack said document requests extended as far as birth certificates and passports for every household member of attending students, even if the student was the only family member going. She said special letters had to be sent explaining divorces of some students’ parents; students had to provide birth certificates and passports of relatives living in other states; and students had to prove where all their family members were born and what they did for a living.
Oblack said the group was explicitly told any students whose parents were journalists or members of the media couldn’t attend.
Rainier junior high and high school students will visit different areas of China from March 24 to April 2. However, the school in China that Rainier partners with for the trip canceled two scheduled visits for their own students to come to Rainier.
At one point, more than 15 Rainier students planned to visit China, but that number has dropped to six, Carter said. He couldn’t confirm with all of them, but he said he believed governmental tensions over trade were a contributing factor.
Cost is another. As recently as last year, students paid less than $1,500 for the trip. This year, the cost is $2,000 because students have to pay for hotels. In past years, Rainier students stayed with Chinese families, and Rainier families hosted the Chinese students during their visits. This is the third year Rainier has had this arrangement.
Because the Chinese students’ trips were canceled, this arrangement didn’t work out this year, Carter said. Although he is still expects the trip to be meaningful, that does alter the experience the school district hopes for students.
“Unlike a regular tour, this is an educational exchange,” Carter said. “They see what it’s like to be a citizen of China and attend school.”
The trade war began in 2017 when the United States began an investigation into Chinese trade policies, culminating in each country imposing tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods from one another, heavily influencing global exports.
Carter said organizing the trip has been “extensively” more difficult than it has in the past. He said Chinese officials have requested birth certificates, marriage certificates and divorce certificates and that some of the 10 chaperones from Rainier have had to send copies of their documents over two or three times.
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Carter didn’t plan to attend this year’s excursion himself, though he has gone before, but said he changed his mind in an effort to make sure everything goes smoothly.
“Since I have more of a relationship with the leaders there, it was more (important) that I did go, which is good because I can make sure our students are able to talk about their country and also learn,” Carter said.
Oblack said her leadership position in the school factored into her decision to go. Though Carter decided to attend this year, Oblack said, they thought it would benefit future visits to have more than one administrator familiar with the schools in Xi’an, China.
“We would like to continue this program and even expand it,” Oblack said. “We need someone else to be a leader in the future.”
Carter said organizing the trip has been frustrating but he feels the trip will still be an important experience for Rainier students.
“We got an invitation from the Chinese government as official guests. … It’s important to keep the partnership going. These are people-to-people exchanges and that’s what it’s all about,” Carter said. “Governments are just made up of people.”
Oblack and Carter both said there was a noticeable distinction in attitudes between Chinese government representatives and those working for the schools that partner with Rainier.
Oblack said that distinction reassured her the trip would go well. She also noted that travel to China is in the same “Level 2” advisory (which recommends increased caution) that it was last time Rainier students visited the country.
Oblack also said the educators in Xi’an have maintained their enthusiasm for having Rainier students visit, even though the city canceled their own students’ trips. Representatives from Xi’an schools helped arrange college tour for Rainier high schoolers and incorporate four days of schooling for both groups of students in the same classroom.
“These educators are so welcoming and so kind to our group,” Oblack said. “They just want to teach us their school system ... and they want to learn like crazy from ours.”
Carter said the annual visits to China are a “trip of a lifetime” for many students. The itinerary includes the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, the Great Wall of China and tours of Beijing
“I think it makes a very big statement, even though it’s a small fish in a big ocean,” Carter said.