US nationalism’s next casualty: Chinese international students

Escalating US-China tension has produced yet another group of casualties. This time it's mainland Chinese international students.

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Last month, amid escalating tension between Washington and Beijing, President Trump issued a presidential proclamation to impose visa restrictions on graduate students and scholars from China, particularly those associated with the Chinese military. The new rule bars the entry of graduate-level students with current or previous ties to entities that “implement or support” Beijing’s “military-civil fusion strategy,” as defined by “actions by or at the behest of the [People’s Republic of China] to acquire and divert foreign technologies [that] advance the PRC’s military capabilities.”

The proclamation came into effect on June 1. The list of affected institutions is not fully known, but the policy has some obvious targets. In addition to schools directly affiliated to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), seven civilian institutions known as the “sons of national defense,” including Beihang University and Harbin Institute of Technology, have also been identified as affiliates of the PLA by U.S. national security agencies. Peking University and Tsinghua University are also involved in Beijing’s defense research. 

While the vast majority of students and researchers at these civilian institutions are not involved in military activities, the restriction’s ambiguity would allow hawkish Republicans to apply a blanket ban on any student with such affiliations. Even if most of these students are far more likely to design smartphone apps at Alibaba or Microsoft than to develop algorithms for missile programs.

Amid Washington’s increasing concern over the PRC’s influence, tightened visa restrictions on Chinese nationals should hardly come as a surprise. Most recently, the Trump administration imposed a new restriction on journalist visas for PRC citizens. While it claims to have targeted U.S.-based reporters working for Chinese state media, Chinese-born journalists at other foreign outlets—from independent media in the PRC and Hong Kong to agencies such as BBC and the Financial Times—were among the most affected. 

There has long been a conversation among Republicans about preventing Chinese citizens from studying and researching in America, as part of their strategy to cripple China’s economy. In October 2018, Stephen Miller, a White House aide known for his unwavering stance against immigration, pushed for an all-encompassing student visa ban on PRC nationals. A few days before Trump announced the visa restriction on Chinese graduate students, GOP senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn introduced the Secure Campus Act, in an attempt to bar all Chinese nationals from graduate and post-graduate programs in STEM fields. Republican Senator Rick Scott also recently proposed to complete “an enhanced vetting” of all Chinese international students to make sure they are not participating in Covid-19-related research. 

US politicians have a long history of inciting Sinophobia in the name of national security. It certainly isn’t limited to the historical Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, or the McCarthy-era persecutions of leftist Chinese scholars. As seen in the recent cases of Sherry Chen and Xiaoxing Xi who were both wrongly accused of espionage, alongside the tragic death of the physicist and potential Nobel laureate Shoucheng Zhang who was under FBI suspicion, Chinese scientists in America have always been unfairly scrutinized over their political loyalties.

The U.S. government and its corporations have a long history of weaponizing national security concerns to maintain economic advantage over their Chinese counterparts.

When one invokes terms such as intellectual espionage, do we picture the theft of classified information—which the vast majority of Chinese graduate students have no access to in the first place—or, rather, the scientific knowledge and training one gets from publicly available textbooks, lectures, and lab research? A high-ranking Republican member of Congress, Cotton said on Fox News in April: “It’s a scandal to me that we have trained so many of the Chinese Communist Party’s brightest minds to go back to China, to compete for our jobs, to take our business and ultimately to steal our property and design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people.” The likes of Cotton aren’t just concerned about national security threats—they think scientific knowledge needs to be nationalized and kept secret from anyone who is Chinese. 

In fact, the U.S. government and its corporations have a long history of weaponizing national security concerns to maintain economic advantage over their Chinese counterparts. Accusations of technological IP theft have often been used to secure America’s supremacy in key industries from foreign, particularly Chinese, competitors.

Some [Chinese international students] even envision themselves as bonding forces that build solidarity between the two peoples despite the challenges caused by nationalism. 

For decades, the academic partnerships between the U.S. and China have persisted to build trust between young scholars and scientists. They have allowed Americans and Chinese nationals to engage in critical conversations with each other despite constant demonization by their respective governments. While most of the 370,000 international students from the PRC enrolled in U.S. institutions will eventually return to China, some continue to see the U.S. as a refuge from Beijing’s heightened political pressure on academic freedom and sociopolitical activism. Some even envision themselves as bonding forces that build solidarity between the two peoples despite the challenges caused by nationalism. 

Moreover, this nationalist paranoia will likely reinforce the myth that people of East Asian descent in America are spies for China—a racist trope that allows white supremacy to strip them of political agency. In a time when Chinese-looking White House correspondents are questioned by the US President about their affiliation with the PRC, the visa ban will only worsen anti-Asian stigma and subject Asians identified as “Chinese” to an increased amount of suspicion and fear.

To the majority of Chinese international students, the vague terms of these visa bans have delivered an unsettling message of uncertainty and distrust. With the rise of authoritarianism in both nations, those struggling to take the middle ground will, unfortunately, get caught in this nationalist crossfire.