The Chinese government’s crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong is just another indication of that government’s rising totalitarianism. Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote that the United States should let in any Hongkonger who wishes to leave – a proposal I agree with. However, the U.S. government is moving in the opposite direction. Not only has it virtually ended all immigration, including for those seeking refuge and asylum, but it will soon go further to limit the migration of Chinese students.
Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) recently introduced the Secure Campus Act that “would prohibit Chinese nationals from receiving visas to the United States for graduate or post‐graduate studies in STEM fields.” Their press release cites the single example of the arrest of Arkansas professor Simon Saw‐Teong Ang for wire fraud, alleging that he failed to disclose ties to the Chinese government and Chinese firms when he applied for NASA grant money. The senators also write that “the Chinese Communist Party has long used American universities to conduct espionage on the United States.”
The Trump administration is expected to follow with an executive order to expel some Chinese students with ties to Chinese universities who are affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (edit: Trump just signed an executive order doing just this). This will come on the heels of the Trump administration efforts that begun in June 2018 to restrict student visas for Chinese citizens studying in subjects with potential national security applications. The U.S. government imposed extra screening for students studying in fields related to the Chinese government’s Made in China 2025 plan and shortening the time period of visas related to aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing from a maximum of five years to one year. The administration is edging toward a total ban on Chinese students.
The Chinese government and Chinese firms have engaged in industrial espionage and state‐espionage in recent decades. There’s no doubt that some small number of foreign students have nefarious intent to steal valuable intellectual property from American firms and universities. But those firms and universities are the victims, and they think the benefits from welcoming Chinese students outweigh the costs. Many of them are strengthening security to prevent theft, but slamming the door shut is an extreme and destructive solution to a manageable problem.
The biggest challenge is getting universities to fully comply with the complex export controls that limit the sharing of potential national‐security related advancements with countries that are potential adversaries of the United States – like China. The government’s focus on Chinese espionage, IP theft, and export of new inventions has led to some tragic career‐ending prosecutions such as in the case of Xiaoxing Xi.
Xi was a Chinese‐born American physics professor and former Chair of the Physics Department at Temple University. The government charged him with wire‐fraud in May 2015, alleging that he sent designs for a pocket heater used in superconductor research to where? The DOJ dropped all charges against Xi after the co‐inventor of the pocket heater showed that the designs Xi shared, as typical in academic collaboration, with Chinese researchers were not for a pocket heater or any other advanced technology. Temple University still placed Xi on administrative leave and he resigned his chairmanship position.
Undeterred by their embarrassment in the Xi case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched the China Initiative in 2018 to “identify and prosecute those engaged in economic espionage, trade secret theft, hacking and other economic crimes.” According to the DOJ, “about 80 percent of all economic espionage prosecutions … allege conduct that would benefit the Chinese state, and there is at least some nexus to China in around 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases.” We only have some of their China Initiative cases available, and a portion of them are troubling, but we the public needs to see all of them rather than a DOJ‐selected list to evaluate how serious the threat is.
There are approximately 380,000 Chinese students studying in the United States out of the roughly 1.4 million foreign students here. About 171,000 of them were enrolled in science and engineering programs at U.S. universities. They are tightly monitored by both the government and universities. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which monitors foreign students studying in the United States, has already “mitigated previously identified national security gaps … and is continuing to enhance the system” according to testimony by Louis A. Rodi III, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting assistant director in charge of enforcing visa rules. Their enrollment and attendance at universities is known in real time by the government, and the students lose their visas immediately if they don’t comply – a system of forced‐compliance virtually unique amongst visas.
The justifications for the DOJ Chinese Initiative are intended to protect American innovation. But stopping the flow of Chinese students to STEM fields, as the Secure Campus Act would do, would undermine U.S. innovation. Despite being 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, Chinese immigrants and their descendants account for almost 9 percent of patents filed in the United States and 8.2 percent in computers, 8 percent in electrical, and 7.2 percent in chemicals.
Even the FBI agrees. “Most foreign students, researchers, or professors studying or working in the United States are here for legitimate and proper reasons,” said one FBI report from 2011 on security in U.S. universities. “Only a very small percentage is actively working at the behest of another government or organization.” Another FBI report from 2020 said that “[t]he vast majority of the 1.4 million international scholars on U.S. campuses pose no threat to their host institutions, fellow classmates, or research fields.”
The leak of some intellectual property by a few Chinese students and researchers is worth the gargantuan economic benefits of their tremendous contributions to U.S. innovation – to say nothing of the non‐Chinese who also sell IP to China or other governments. The U.S. government should continue to try and limit industrial espionage and state‐espionage, but halting or severely restricting Chines migration is akin to removing part of one’s brain to remedy an allergy‐induced headache.
Rather than reducing Chinese immigration to combat China, the United States should drastically liberalize immigration. For decades, the best minds in China have left for freer and greener pastures abroad. The Chinese government is desperate to have them return as part of their central economic plan of becoming a leader in science and technology by 2050, which is the justification or their Thousand Talents Program that incentivizes Chinese scientists to return (sometimes with stolen IP) to study in China, often with large bonuses.
The Chinese government is even attempting to send recruiters overseas to entice Chinese students to return to reverse the brain drain in China. In part due to their decades‐long and brutal one‐child policy, the Chinese population is aging more rapidly than our own. By 2045, about a third of China will be 60 or older compared to about 22 percent in the United States.
This represents a golden opportunity to drain the best minds from China that will undermine their government’s efforts to have Chinese students and scientists return, as well as worsen their demographics while bettering our own. Every Chinese national with a college degree should be able to get a work permit or green card without numerical cap. Those studying in the United States state should be welcomed, allowed, and even encouraged to stay.
Chinese institutions and the Thousand Talents Program provide foreign scientists with signing bonuses up to $151,000 and research stipends ranging from $453,000 to $755,000 for established scientists over the age of 40. Even with those enticements, 90 percent of Chinese STEM doctorate recipients were still in the United States a decade after completing their studies. All the U.S. government has to do to wipe out the Chinese government’s talent recruitment efforts and raise that percentage even more is allow them to come to study, work, and live here with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss and the removal of arbitrary visa restrictions.
Efforts by Tom Cotton and the Trump administration are inspired by legitimate national security considerations. They’re rightly worried about Chinese espionage, but their solutions will only strengthen the Chinese state. The example of the U.S. returning Chinese immigrant Qian Xuesen to China should provide a cautionary tale. Xuesen immigrated from China and earned his Ph.D. from Cal Tech in 1939. He was a pioneer in cybernetics, aerospace engineering, and physics. He was involved with the Manhattan Project and designing American rockets. Theodore von Karman, legendary aerospace engineer, mathematician, and physicist, pronounced Xuesen an “undisputed genius.”
During the Cold War, Xuesen was accused of being a Communist on flimsy evidence. He lost his security clearances and his career options limited. He decided to return to China and was detained by U.S. authorities for five years under house arrest after the government claimed that he was trying to smuggle out classified documents. Subsequent examination of the documents showed they contained no classified material. Eventually Xuesen was traded to China in exchange for downed American pilots.
In China, Xuesen helped lead the Chinese nuclear weapons program and their missile program, earning the moniker “Father of Chinese Rocketry.” Undersecretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball, who knew Xuesen personally, said “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go.” How many other brilliant Chinese scientists like Xuesen will the U.S. government turn back or force to leave because of the fear of IP theft and espionage? While real concerns, the threat from espionage is trivial in comparison to the known cost of keeping thousands of Chinese scientists and engineers in China.
It’s no secret that many policymakers in the United States and the People’s Republic of China want a new Cold War. Trade restrictions, espionage, and military buildups in both countries are moving in that direction. Except for Xuesen, the United States government welcomed people fleeing Communist countries and reformed its entire refugee and asylum program to do so. The U.S. government likely reformed the entire immigration system in 1965 in response to the Cold War. The Communist countries had to impose draconian emigration restrictions to keep their people from fleeing. Many Chinese, including some of their top minds, would jump at the opportunity to study, work, and live in the United States. For the benefits of our own economy and national security as well as for the sake of Chinese citizens seeking freedom, we should welcome them rather than throw up new barriers.