How Should the U.S. Government Treat Chinese Students in America?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On July 30, the State Department’s top education official Marie Royce gave a speech entitled “The United States Welcomes Chinese Students.” In it, she quoted recent remarks from Donald Trump, who said, “We want to have Chinese students come and use our great schools, our great universities. They have been great students and tremendous assets.”

The remarks come amidst growing tensions between the two nations. On June 3, an official from China’s Ministry of Education warned students about the “risks” associated with studying in the United States, and Chinese data claims the U.S. government is rejecting a growing number of visa applications from Chinese government-sponsored students. U.S. officials have spoken about restricting the number of Chinese students coming to America, especially those linked to the Party’s military, the People’s Liberation Army. There are roughly 370,000 Chinese students at American universities, almost one third of the total foreign student population.

Should there be increased scrutiny of Chinese student visa applications? How can American universities remain vibrant centers of scholarship, cutting edge research, and international exchange, while accurately calibrating the potential danger to U.S. interests of industrial espionage, or of efforts to suppress criticism of the Chinese Communist Party? —The Editors


As the trade war between the United States and China escalates, Chinese international students and scholars in the United States are caught in the middle. The May 16 dismissal of two Chinese scientists at Emory University has stirred anxiety and a sense of insecurity among Chinese scholars. Many who participated in the Thousand Talents Recruitment Program, a controversial Chinese government-sponsored program to encourage overseas Chinese and foreign scholars to work in China, are worried that their ties to China will get them into trouble.

Increased scrutiny of academic exchange is certainly legitimate in such a contentious time, but clear communication about the legal and regulatory requirements regarding international academic exchange is much needed. Higher education institutions need to create timely training programs and workshops to help researchers better understand and comply with changing policies, especially issues around international collaboration and foreign funding. Prominent universities, including, among others, Yale, Harvard, and Rice, responded to recent tensions by both affirming their commitment to international scholarly exchange and their willingness to discuss concerns with federal agencies. A Chinese Ministry of Education spokeswoman cited these statements in a June 3 press conference, as evidence that American universities still welcomed Chinese students. It is a delicate balance for American universities to strike: How to remain as open as possible to attract the talent required for cutting-edge research, while staying vigilant about potential industrial espionage.

On the Chinese side, visa restrictions on graduate students of STEM majors are a recurring issue. And since June 2018, the State Department has restricted visas for Chinese graduate students studying in certain sensitive research fields to one year, instead of the five-year visas students in other fields have enjoyed since 2014. Moreover, starting from May this year, visa applicants from all countries must submit account names of all the social media they have used in the past five years. Besides social media that are commonly used in the U.S. such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, the list also includes Chinese ones like Douban and Sina Weibo. This new requirement unsurprisingly incited unease among Chinese applicants.

Educational consulting firms in China are trying to manage the growing concerns of Chinese parents and students by showing an increase in F-1 student visas issued, from 3,700 in April 2018 to 4,281 in April 2019. And while that data itself doesn’t mean more Chinese students are coming to America, it does show the dedication of those in the education industry to continue profiting from America’s largest international student market. Meanwhile, Chinese parents and students are considering other options for study-abroad destinations. If the tensions between the United States and China intensify, both students and scholars may be steered towards other English-speaking countries, such as Canada, the U.K., and Australia. At the end of the day, freedom of movement and international intellectual exchange are certainly in jeopardy if both governments continue to put students and scholars in the crossfire.

The U.S. government has grown increasingly worried about the role of international students and scholars at American institutions of higher education. Though this has not focused exclusively on China, that country is at the center of the controversy. This is partly due to scale—there are roughly 370,000 Chinese students and scholars in America—and partly to Chinese government programs that promote scientific collaboration, educational exchange, and expanding China’s research capacity. U.S. government concern centers on intellectual property theft, illicit technology transfer, and their implications for national security. Universities worry about research ethics violations, conflict of interests, and conflicts of commitment of their faculty and staff.

These concerns are warranted, but the problems aren’t exclusive to China. Many Chinese government programs accept academics of any ethnicity, and their incentives appeal to many scholars faced with years of cuts in research funding at the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The U.S. government should not focus excessively on ethnicity as a cause for suspicion. Moreover, it needs to disaggregate the broad group of “Chinese students and scholars” by their degree status (undergraduate vs. graduate), their funding sources (privately-paid tuition vs. Chinese government scholarship), and their field (humanities and social sciences vs. STEM) before crafting any policies that attempt to manage research collaboration. U.S. universities should continue to attract the best and the brightest from any country while still protecting national security.

Since 2008, the number of Chinese students pursuing education in the United States has increased rapidly, mostly because of increasing numbers of undergraduates. These students and their families have opted out of China’s higher education system. Although they reflect the economic power of China’s rising middle and upper classes, their decision also signals their dissatisfaction with China’s universities—with the quality of the education, but also the more constrained political atmosphere, the renewed emphasis on political study and ideology, and restrictions on information.

Sure, some of these students are nationalistic and might be challenging to teach. They may have had limited exposure to diverse sources of information and many come from privileged, even insular, backgrounds. However, I’m struck most by their diversity—of views, and of backgrounds. Some are liberal; some are conservative. Some barely know their own country, having left it as children for boarding schools that maximized their chances of admission to a top U.S. university. They often need more social and academic support than they currently receive, to succeed in an environment that is radically different from the intense, but narrow, competition of China’s urban elite high schools.

The national security and research ethics problems that come with internationalized scientific research and collaboration are real. But they are far more likely to involve advanced graduate students, visiting researchers, and faculty—of any ethnicity—than undergraduate students from China. In treating all Chinese students and scholars as suspect, the United States jeopardizes the benefits of one of our largest service “exports” to China and risks diminishing one of our greatest sources of soft power—our world class universities.

Hostility towards China has become one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement among American political elites. China’s re-emergence as a dynamic economic and political player in regional and global affairs has come to be seen as a challenge to U.S. power and dominance, eroding the role America has played and the control it has exercised since the end of World War II. While Western business and government leaders and intellectual observers initially welcomed China’s economic reforms, they did so expecting that China would come to accept the liberal order of democratic politics prevalent in America and Western Europe, and would open its domestic markets to the overwhelming influence of foreign investment. China’s embrace of some elements of market economics has allowed it to grow into the world’s second-largest economy, but the Communist Party has carefully retained its leading role in politics and government, with the avowed mission of guiding development and mitigating the worst effects of market forces. The current leadership centered on Xi Jinping has promoted a renewed engagement with the Marxist ideas and ideals which originally animated the revolution, and is clearly dedicated to preserving the Party’s place at the heart of Chinese society.

China’s determination to follow its own path has frustrated and angered American policymakers and politicians across party lines. While President Trump is the headline act in his “trade war,” Republicans and Democrats compete with each other to criticize China and demand that it conform to American expectations and standards. This is both short-sighted and counter-productive. The American and Chinese economies have become deeply interconnected. Educational exchanges and cooperation have played a critical role both in China’s development as a modern economy and in America’s continuing technological and intellectual development. Knowledge and awareness of what is going on in each country is the best way to insure future progress and growth for both sides. An atmosphere of hostility and suspicion, typified by rhetorical attacks on Chinese students as potential fifth columnists, or on educational initiatives to promote greater understanding of China in America and America in China harms the interests of Americans and Chinese alike.

Rivalry between China and the United States will continue. Established powers rarely yield gracefully to rising ones. Each side in this process will pursue its own ambitions and hopes for the future, and given the place these two countries occupy in global affairs, the course of their interactions will have profound effects on every other country as well. Closing the door to educational exchanges, and demonizing Chinese students in America, will hurt us as well as them. Each side will seek to protect its interests, but a continuing lively and dynamic exchange of students and scholars will better serve America than a frightened constriction of the flow of knowledge and information.

In my experience at both Ivy League and public universities, the influx of undergraduate students from the People’s Republic of China over the past 15 years has been one of the most dramatic changes in American higher education. Unsurprisingly, this change has been met with suspicion in the media and in parts of American society not directly touched by higher education, particularly as tensions with China have been rising since before the trade war, and the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou has highlighted America’s vulnerability to high-tech security threats.

I teach Chinese literature at the University of Virginia (UVA), and around the time I arrived at UVA nine years ago, there were hardly any students from China in my classes or attending events in the broader East Asian academic circle. In the early days, it was probably true that Chinese students in the university were an insular group and interacted more with each other than with non-Chinese students. However, as students from China increased in number, they have integrated well with the broader UVA community, and have added value through their active participation in the Chinese Corner language program (which greatly benefits learners of the Chinese language), the extraordinary annual contemporary theatrical productions of the LingXi Chinese Theatre, and their increasing numbers not only in my Chinese literature classes but also among the Chinese and East Asian Studies majors in my department. Some struggle with English, as do students from other countries, but mostly they have extraordinary English language and academic skills. They have brought valuable perspectives to my classes, heightening attention to issues of translation, moral value, and artistic taste.

In addition to these undergraduates, Chinese studies at UVA has also benefited from visiting Ph.D. students and young lecturers and assistant professors on China Scholarship Council (CSC) program grants. This Chinese Ministry of Education foundation funds international educational experiences for advanced graduate students and young faculty in all fields, as well as scholarships for foreign students to study in China. Apart from having to process temporary visas and campus credentials for students and scholars funded by CSC, foreign host universities don’t have to contribute anything—office space, compensation, academic credits—but the visitors often contribute value in classes they audit, guest appearances in Chinese language classes, and in scholarly communication with their host professors and other faculty and students. Interestingly, while there has been media attention to constraints on academic freedom and interaction with “Western” ideas in China, every year Beijing sends thousands of CSC scholars around the world, freely interacting with new academic environments. I have developed productive and long-lasting academic relationships with most of the CSC scholars I have hosted at UVA, and I have never had any reason to suspect that they have been doing anything but studying and experiencing the U.S. and advancing their research programs.

Over the next two months, more than 350,000 Chinese students will arrive at American universities and colleges. Tens of thousands more will enroll in secondary and primary schools. These students don’t pose a threat to America. If anything, their families’ decisions to invest their savings and their futures in overseas education suggests a hedge against China’s uncertain future in favor of America’s.

We should not demonize Chinese students; instead, we should embrace them. Why? They are talented, contributing to path-breaking research and leading extracurricular initiatives. They contribute to the understanding of China on U.S. campuses. And by spending roughly $13 billion annually, they help balance America’s trade deficit with China: only aircraft and machinery outrank education when it comes to export values.

Chinese students are not feeling embraced. A growing number report delays in their visa applications. The overall number of University of Pennsylvania student visa applications being sent for administrative processing has doubled from 2018 to 2019 and 80 percent of delays are in China. In February, the Department of State quietly doubled administrative processing time from 90 to 180 days. These delays can cause students to miss enrollment deadlines, with significant financial and other consequences. While the State Department has an important job to perform in screening visas, the current practices seem discriminatory, and will drive Chinese students to other countries.

This is not to ignore the evidence that China engages in espionage against U.S. interests, including academic interests. So, what should be done? Universities must pay careful attention to export control policies, unauthorized or unsupervised visits to research facilities, and cyber intrusions, as well as conducting due diligence on sponsorships and foreign donations.

But even as we agree on these “best” practices, we must acknowledge that universities are not corporations. Universities are oriented to engage. Academics work in highly collaborative, diverse, and open environments. We do not create or protect commercial “trade secrets,” much less implement counterespionage programs.

Beyond espionage, American academic institutions can take more responsibility for our values. The Yale case, where an American researcher unknowingly facilitated Beijing’s repression against the Uighurs, is a warning. We should prevent U.S. technological and scientific expertise from being used for unethical and immoral purposes. When Chinese academics get punished for their liberal views, we should speak out. And we should be vigilant about impingements on academic freedom on our home campuses, starting with requiring transparency around the funding for Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs).

There is one bright spot. Standard talking points about promoting mutual understanding may now give way to more honest discussions about our differences. In a recent exchange at Penn with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we discussed the challenges in the U.S.-China relationship, highlighting the difficulties of continued engagement in the face of rollback of reform and repression in Xinjiang. These may be difficult times in the relationship, but they will ideally lead us to a more honest place about our divergences—and our shared interests.

Over one million international students are currently enrolled in U.S. universities, with roughly one third from China. Among Chinese elites, the U.S. is widely believed to have the best higher education system in the world. And with rapid economic growth over the past 40 years, millions of Chinese families now have the financial means to send their children to America’s most expensive institutions.

And yet there are signs that the growing dispute between the two governments is spilling over into higher education. The first is the simplest and most immediate: The U.S. government is taking much longer to process student visas, with Chinese students starting to look elsewhere. (Applications for Fall admission into U.K. universities are up 30 percent.) The delays aren’t limited to visas. It is taking much longer for Chinese students to get permission to work in the U.S. after graduation, an attractive option that until recently was a major draw.

I experienced this on a recent trip to China. Public resentment toward the U.S. is extensive, even among the elite. While the trade dispute and the visa delays have been the proximate causes, there is now a sense that the issues run much deeper, with the U.S. focused on containing China economically and politically.

In several recent interviews with the Chinese press, I have been asked to explain the discrepancy between current visa policies and President Donald Trump’s statement that the U.S. welcomes Chinese students. I usually give a short civics lesson on the fragmented nature of our federal government. The more nuanced answer is that there is no consensus on China strategy.

The second concern is more complex and disturbing: The legislative and executive branches increasingly see Chinese students as potential spies. A policy change last year cited several high-tech fields for additional scrutiny during the visa application process, and the FBI has described Chinese students as being part of a grand strategy to appropriate advanced technology from the U.S. In Congress, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) recently said that the Chinese government is “trying to weaponize” students who come to the U.S.

U.S. law separates industrial espionage, which is the theft of intellectual property, from economic espionage, which is industrial espionage with a foreign government as the ultimate customer. (An emerging term “academic espionage” has no legal meaning.) Because most university research will eventually appear in the public domain through academic journals and conferences, many universities are questioning the basis of these claims. Nevertheless, the emergence of China as a technology rival, and in particular its stated goal of achieving global primacy in several advanced sectors, suggests that the openness of scientific inquiry in the U.S. is on a collision course with national security policy.

The U.S. technology sector still has the ability to attract and retain talent from all over the world. That pipeline often starts with a talented Chinese student enrolling at a U.S. university. In an attempt to remain globally competitive, the U.S. may be giving away its most important advantage of all.

“Perhaps five out of every 100 mainland Chinese students in the U.S. has a second mission.” Arthur Waldron, a particularly hawkish professor of History and International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, who has advised U.S. lawmakers on China policy, made this comment.

Even if the number is that high, U.S. immigration authorities should not single out Chinese students for extra vetting. Such a move risks overlooking threats posed by students from any number of other countries, who may seek to undermine American interests for money, ideology, or both.

But more importantly, history offers so many lessons apparently not learned about targeting a particular ethnic group. Just as the vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. are not terrorists and generally contribute to American society, Chinese—newly arrived, naturalized, or native-born—make significant contributions to the country.

Anyone reading this should understand how educational exchanges between the U.S. and China have, for more than a century, helped more than any other channel to foster bilateral understanding.

There are already signs—anecdotal and statistical—that the U.S. government’s suspicion of Chinese students is starting to drive down their numbers in the country. Further measures risk severing this most important channel of cultural exchange and setting the two countries more definitively on the path to another cold war.

There are almost certainly Chinese students in the U.S. with, as Waldron says, dual missions. Probably not one in 20, but they’re around. The U.S. government needs to address this as a specific problem and not as a general concept. That is, the determination that there are Chinese spies in the U.S. should not translate into: all Chinese in the U.S. are spies, or even that Chinese in the U.S. are more likely to be spies than those in any other group.

American universities and research centers are already working with the government’s intelligence officials to implement security measures that will keep sensitive research secure, and on how to detect breaches of those measures. This is sensible and necessary.

By putting more resources into these efforts instead of putting all Chinese student visa applications into a separate category, we might avoid a complete severing of the academic exchanges that have benefited both sides so much.

During my college years as an international student, dealing with the U.S. government to renew visas and file taxes was more stressful for me than exams and packing, but I’m glad that such bureaucratic procedures required by the U.S. government only minimally interfered with my education.

For international students and scholars in the U.S., the less the bureaucratic interference, the more enjoyable the education experience. In fact, many Chinese students and scholars appreciate the academic environment in the U.S. precisely for its relative freedom from bureaucracy and politics. Now, that appeal is fading, as some routine F-1 visa applications are experiencing significant delays and some researchers face hostile scrutiny because of their country of origin.

Even though concerns about espionage are legitimate, the smart thing for the U.S. government to do amidst rising diplomatic tensions is attempt to win over Chinese students and scholars by leaving them alone in a free academic environment on U.S. campuses. China consistently interferes politically in its own universities in an effort to curb dissent. Although any get-tough approach by the U.S. side is unlikely to match the scope and intensity of China’s own political interference, it might unwittingly spur the false equivalency of both countries being somewhat bad at ensuring academic freedom. The current rhetoric of indiscriminate suspicion of Chinese students and scholars, as voiced by FBI Director Christopher Wray, lends support to that false narrative.

For decades, the United States has attracted global talent with its openness and generosity. China’s capitalizing on the openness and generosity for espionage does not mean those were the wrong approaches. The U.S. government should realize that it cannot afford to play tit for tat with China when it comes to inconveniencing individual students and scholars because the U.S. has a far better reputation to lose.