A student applicant from China, who was admitted to nearly 10 U.S. universities to study computer science, was denied a visa recently, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The U.S. embassy in Beijing wrote a letter saying the student’s father’s employment with Chinese law enforcement, and the failure of China to accept repatriation of Chinese citizens in the United States subject to orders of removal, caused the visa denial.
President Trump’s policies that make it more difficult for China’s science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), and military-linked academics to obtain visas apparently remain largely in place under President Biden, and could even be expanded. A senior U.S. official recently told the SCMP that Chinese nationals with a “hi-tech” background continue to be restricted.
After a ruling last year, the United States revoked the visas of over 1,000 Chinese academics with ties to the military. The most recent “temporary” visa denial on grounds of ties to China’s law enforcement, is a shot across China’s bow. The message to China is that current limits on Chinese national academics with military ties could be extended more permanently to those with law enforcement ties.
U.S. policies against military-linked and STEM students from China are the right policy, but have implications for both countries, as Chinese students are big business for America’s universities. In 2020, approximately 35 percent of international students in the United States hailed from China. Chinese students and their families spent approximately $13 billion in the United States in 2018.
Approximately 16 percent of STEM graduate students in the United States, and 2 percent of STEM undergraduate students in the United States, are Chinese nationals, according to a Georgetown University study. Across the six main STEM fields, “there are around 46,000 Chinese undergraduates, an estimated 40,000 master’s students, and an estimated 36,000 Ph.D. students,” according to the study. “At the undergraduate level, around one-third of all Chinese students at U.S. universities are in STEM fields, compared to more than half at the graduate level.”
U.S. universities and professors are typically against limits on Chinese national students, I would argue, because their institutions get significant revenue from the full-tuitions that these students typically pay. Academic reliance on China financially creates a soft-on-China academic atmosphere. Academics frequently wrap their opposition to limits on Chinese national STEM students in ethical claims of the good of an open scientific community, but they also typically fail to acknowledge the threat that China’s expanding economy and military, both dependent upon STEM, has for the long-term viability of democracy, upon which truly open science and academic freedom depends.
Legitimate concerns about anti-Asian racism may also affect public academic views on limiting China’s STEM, as anti-racist commentators sometimes falsely conflate science-related strategies to limit China’s power with racism against Asian-Americans or Chinese-Americans. Nobody is suggesting that Asian-Americans should be limited. In fact, limits on Chinese nationals could increase the STEM positions available for Americans of all types, including Asian-Americans, in U.S. academia.
Were a professor to support limits on Chinese nationals admitted to STEM programs, the academic could be targeted and lose his or her job for violating academic beliefs about political correctness. The safer approach for academics is to remain silent on the matter, which most do, or to publicly protest against any such restrictions, which could be a virtue-signaling strategy to optimize the chances of promotion within university administrations.
U.S. government officials are less frequently under such mutually-reinforcing academic illusions and strictures on China issues. The recent letter from the U.S. embassy in Beijing to an education consulting company in the same city listed four leading Chinese law enforcement agencies for which visas would be denied to senior officials, their spouses, and their children under the age of 21. These visa applications would be “temporarily discontinued” per the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, according to the letter.
The SCMP wrote that the letter “said China had denied or unreasonably delayed accepting the return of its citizens who were subject to final orders of removal from the United States, and that normal visa issuance would resume if China complied with US requests on the matter.”
The affected agencies include China’s National Immigration Administration, the National Supervisory Commission (an anti-corruption agency), the Ministry of State Security (an intelligence agency), and the Ministry of Public Security (a law enforcement agency). For the last of these agencies, visa application cancellations would include children under age 30.
According to the SCMP, “Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it was ‘good proof’ that the United States had disrupted normal personnel exchanges between the two countries for political reasons, which was not conducive to good China-US relations.” Ms. Hua’s use of the term “personnel” is telling. The term has been defined as “a noun describing a group of people who follow orders…”. This is precisely the worry with Chinese national STEM students when they return home to China.
And it is China, not the United States, that disrupted good relations between the two countries, most notably through its genocide of the Uyghurs, but also through up to $600 billion in intellectual property theft annually. The list of grievances is vast, but for the present purposes, either of these crimes is enough to justify a limitation of STEM cooperation.
The U.S. embassy’s letter added a new grievance, that China did not accept the return of its citizens subject to final U.S. orders of repatriation back to China. In other words, Chinese nationals are apparently violating U.S. immigration law at the behest of their own government. I won’t call that an invasion by state-directed foot draggers, but it is a truly shocking move by the Chinese government that should be further investigated and publicized. Republicans don’t take too kindly to that sort of law-breaking.
Nobody is proposing that Chinese nationals who are majoring in art, history, literature, or social sciences, should be excluded from U.S. and allied academic institutions. Indeed, we should welcome such students with the hope that they will bring back a respect for freedom, human rights, and democracy to their home country. We might also learn something from them about China.
However, China’s STEM academics, including undergraduate and graduate students, are another matter. Youth is no excuse. Some of the most brilliant thinking in STEM subjects, especially in the field of mathematics, is done during the undergraduate years. Such insights, if enabled by Western science, will be brought back to China and could be used against the United States and allies to devastating effect.
China’s totalitarian system means that STEM academics, as long as they remain Chinese nationals, or have significant family or financial assets in China, will be subject to Chinese government pressure to provide STEM knowledge to the authorities or Chinese companies, who can then proliferate such knowledge throughout China’s massive economy and military-industrial complex. A bigger and stronger Chinese economy means a bigger and stronger Chinese military. Given China’s aggression in places like the South and East China Seas, and against India, Bhutan, and Myanmar (Burma), it would be irresponsible to collaborate scientifically with China at this time.
Unlike in the United States, where scientific knowledge and discoveries are often closely-held corporate secrets, in China their power is multiplied through sharing between government and “private” entities, including a range of private, public, and state-owned Chinese corporations. Given China’s totalitarian system, the notion of anything being “private” or even publicly-held, when nearly all Chinese corporations must have Chinese Communist Party cells embedded in their management structures, is an inaccuracy. In China, all corporations and individuals are much more closely linked to the state than they are in free economies.
International scientific freedom, like free trade, is a wonderful principle for friendly countries to follow. But everything changes when one country starts to take advantage of other countries and such freedoms in an aggressive manner, as China has done. Likewise a serial human rights violator, to the point of genocide, should not be further empowered through continued STEM exchange and free trade. At this point in China’s history, other countries would be unstrategic, ethically at fault, and potentially greedy or compromised, to allow scientific cooperation to continue with Chinese nationals.
But limits on such cooperation will be ineffective if only imposed by the United States. All leading scientific nations that value freedom and democracy, including South Korea, Japan, and countries in Europe, must act in a unified manner to effectively pressure China to reform. Piecemeal strictures will just shift the problem to those countries without restrictions. International allied action is required.
Anders Corr has a BA/MA in political science from Yale University (2001) and a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a Principal at Corr Analytics Inc., Publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.