The Right Way to Bring Chinese STEM Talent Back to the U.S.

Last month, the U.S. government tightened its restrictions on Huawei, limiting what licensed companies can sell the Chinese telecommunications giant. It was another sign that President Joe Biden is willing to embrace some of the Trump administration’s hardline stances toward Chinese technology. But as Biden continues to establish his China strategy, there is one area where he should make a clean break from his predecessor: managing STEM talent flows.

The Trump administration deployed a raft of restrictions on international students and workers, many of which directly targeted or disproportionally impacted Chinese STEM talent. While some measures had a basis in legitimate concerns like illicit technology transfer, they were often far broader than necessary, contributing to a more difficult environment for Chinese nationals in the U.S. and unduly harming U.S. companies and universities that rely on Chinese talent. The ability to attract top STEM talent from around the world is a key element of U.S. science and technology leadership, and China is the United States’ largest source of such talent. To preserve American technology leadership—and soft power diplomacy—Biden should scrap much of the Trump administration’s agenda and create a more balanced approach to managing the STEM talent pipeline from China.

For decades, some of the best and brightest STEM talent in China has come to study and work in the U.S. Chinese nationals comprise 16 percent of all STEM graduate students at U.S. universities. China also supplies by far the most STEM Ph.D. candidates to American institutions of any foreign country. Most of these Ph.D.s stay and work in the U.S. after graduation. This steady supply of high-skilled STEM talent benefits U.S. science and innovation. It also helps to mitigate domestic labor shortages in key fields like artificial intelligence. This keeps the country globally competitive in these fields and dissuades American multinational companies from offshoring research and development in search of deeper international talent pools.

The China-U.S. STEM pipeline carries some level of risk, including the possibility that Chinese nationals could illicitly transfer technology back to China. In an effort to prevent tech transfer, Donald Trump issued Presidential Proclamation 10043, which denied student visas for Chinese graduate students in STEM fields who currently or previously studied or worked at a Chinese institution that “implements or supports” civil-military fusion in China.

While technology transfer is a serious issue, this proclamation is too broad for the scope of the problem. The overwhelming majority of Chinese students—99.9 percent, according to former Trump counterintelligence official William Evanina—do not come to the U.S. with malicious intent. Yet President Trump’s direction to base individual visa decisions solely on an institutional affiliation does not reflect this reality. Many universities in China have some level of affiliation with the Chinese military; even through a conservative interpretation of its language, the proclamation could therefore affect significant numbers of Chinese graduate students. One estimate, by scholars at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, concluded the proclamation could bar up to a quarter of Chinese graduate students who come to the United States each year.

The Trump administration’s Homeland Security Department also introduced a draft rule in September that would impose a four-year limit on student visas, purportedly to reduce the risk of unlawful overstays. But the rule would severely disrupt a program known as Optional Practical Training, which allows international STEM students to work in their field for up to three years after graduating. Graduates who take advantage of Optional Practical Training are a key recruiting pool for U.S. STEM employers, who use the program to hire thousands of Chinese nationals each year. Fortunately, this rule was not finalized before Trump left office; the decision of whether to proceed with or abandon the rule now rests with Biden.

The H-1B visa program for specialty occupations also came under repeated assault from the Trump administration, disproportionately affecting Chinese nationals, who together with Indian nationals represent the large majority of H-1B beneficiaries. H-1B denial rates spiked after Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order in 2017. A separate executive order in June 2020 temporarily banned the issuance of new H-1B visas to applicants outside of the U.S. The Biden administration has delayed but not revoked a rule proposed in late 2020 which would raise required wages for H-1B workers to a point that effectively prices them out of the U.S. labor market.

Cumulatively, the Trump administration’s policies risk eroding the U.S.’s status as the preeminent international beneficiary of Chinese talent. Early warning signs are already visible: The number of student visas issued to Chinese nationals decreased 99 percent in the last year. Much of the drop can be attributed to COVID-19, but the number of Chinese student visas declined 11 percent more than the average for all nationalities. Given the uncertain environment for Chinese STEM talent that the Trump administration created, Chinese nationals may no longer see opportunities in the U.S. as the best option for them. U.S. employers and universities may also think twice before accepting Chinese applicants, even if they lack equally qualified alternatives.

Biden must act quickly to arrest these trends and restore a vital source of STEM talent by deploying policies that are more precisely tailored to the actual risks associated with Chinese talent. He has already taken steps in this regard by revoking the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order and allowing the H-1B visa ban to expire, but he can and should do more.

Biden can begin by rescinding the broad student visa ban authorized by Presidential Proclamation 10043. In its place should be a specialized, case-by-case vetting process for Chinese graduate students with ties to institutions of concern. This process would cost money and may require better sources of intelligence. But the burden of such efforts would be more than offset by the economic benefits of sustained and safe access to Chinese STEM talent.

Next, the administration should scrap the proposed wage hike for H-1B workers and retract the proposal mandating a four-year limit on student visas. Finally, Biden should seek to provide reassurances about the future of the STEM pipeline, so that Chinese applicants remain willing to commit to years-long programs of study with U.S. universities. This could involve a public pledge to preserve Optional Practical Training opportunities, at least for current international students or those about to matriculate.

While the United States is right to counteract illicit technology transfer and protect work opportunities for Americans, it must do so in a way that avoids inflicting unnecessary harm on its own science and innovation base by disrupting one of its most important international STEM talent sources. The Trump administration’s approach failed in this regard. Without reform, Chinese talent flows will never return to their pre-pandemic levels, and American science and technology will be worse off for it.