Don’t Close the Door on Chinese Scientists Like Me

New visa limitations for Chinese students only aid Beijing’s technocratic ambitions.

A researcher disinfects a one-day-old panda cub in an incubator at the China Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre on August 8, 2006  (China Photos/Getty Images)
A researcher disinfects a one-day-old panda cub in an incubator at the China Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre on August 8, 2006 (China Photos/Getty Images)

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

When then-President Barack Obama uttered these words from the steps of the U.S. Capitol during his first inaugural address, I was watching as a college senior in China, anxiously waiting for admission letters to Ph.D. programs in the United States. I didn’t know the context of the George W. Bush-era policies he spoke of, but I committed the words to memory: America represented an ideal of freedom and opportunity that was worth the risks of the journey.

Today, in my ninth year working in the United States as a Chinese scientist, those ideals seem much further away. The State Department is expected to adopt new limitations on Chinese researchers in the United States, including the shortening of student visas in high-tech fields and additional security clearances for work visas. This new measure comes on the heels of the National Defense Authorization Act in May, which included a murky provision prohibiting Defense Department grants from going to researchers who participate in China’s talent recruitment programs.

The United States may feel it’s only playing defense in a global cold war over tech. In reality, these policies play into Beijing’s preferred vision of the world. China sees science as a tool of national greatness and scientists as servants to the state. This parochial vision discounts the individual agency and ethical obligations of scientists and runs contrary to the cosmopolitan ideal of science. The United States must uphold those ideals, not create new boundaries.

Like ill-guided policies in the war on terror, the new restrictions represent the wrong approach to addressing a real problem. China’s pursuit of technological prowess includes not only increased investments in domestic research but also aggressive recruitment of foreign-trained talent, forced transfer of technology from foreign firms, and outright intellectual property theft aided and abetted by the Chinese government. With its intensifying push of a “civil-military fusion,” China’s technological advancement also means a stronger Chinese military and a more powerful surveillance state.

I am among those who have raised serious concerns about the dangers of the mixture of advanced technology and determined authoritarianism in China. But the United States cannot seek to win a tech race against China by compromising its own liberal democratic ideals. Restricting Chinese scientists’ work at U.S. institutions based on nothing more than one’s citizenship or country of origin will be a self-inflicted wound, hurting not only the country’s values but also the pool of talent it can draw on.

Targeting nationality, rather than actual activities, is a dangerous route to go down. Eager for access to the Chinese market or capital, U.S. companies and personnel are themselves often responsible for compromising tech security through ill-judged joint ventures.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations proposed restrictions on Chinese researchers over similar concerns and eventually backed down after fierce pushback from academia and tech industries. There’s also a disturbing record of false accusations against scientists of Chinese ancestry, including the Taiwanese-born nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, as well as the recent cases of Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi and National Weather Service hydrologist Sherry Chen. Charges were eventually dropped and apologies made — but not before irreversible damage was done to careers, reputations, and trust in the government.

China is the largest source country of international students and visiting scholars to U.S. universities. Visa restrictions and additional security hurdles on Chinese scientists would cause serious harm to the collaborative nature of scientific research and would be a colossal waste of government resources that could be devoted to investigating actual cases of unlawful behavior with proper due process.

On a more fundamental level, a policy that discriminates based on national origin is not only wrong but also dangerous. Being an immigrant in America always carries a certain probationary quality. That fragility has only intensified since the current administration took office, both for the plethora of anti-immigrant policies it has implemented and for the dark undercurrents of racism and xenophobia in American society it has helped unleash.

A policy that evokes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 will further enflame racial hostility and aid the Chinese government’s own mission to extend its influence overseas for both talent recruitment and political control. The Chinese government preys on the vulnerability and perpetual otherness felt by immigrants to assert itself as the rightful guardian of the Chinese people worldwide. Without being implemented, the suggestion alone of such discriminatory policies casts doubt on every Chinese citizen as a potential agent of the Chinese state, guilty until proved innocent, and inadvertently gives credence to the Chinese government’s own claim that it holds not only control over a territory but also ownership of a people, including its diaspora.

Instead of having racist paranoia turn the Chinese government’s nativist assertions into a self-fulfilling prophecy, the United States must prove the fallacy of such authoritarian delusion by welcoming Chinese immigrants and protecting them from undue pressure by their home government. Chinese scientists in the United States should not be seen as a cash cow for universities, exploited for cheap labor, or suspected as foreign spies. Instead, we deserve dignity, freedom, and equality — the fundamental rights that the Chinese government is too fearful to grant its people.

The United States cannot win a tech race against China by losing itself. The United States is at its best when it lives up to its founding ideals of equality and openness. U.S. leadership is at its best when it builds international coalitions based on universal values and shared goals, not narrow self-interest. Whether it is the splitting of an atom or the slicing of a gene, breakthroughs in modern science and technology carry implications for the whole of humanity. A secure future demands that every stakeholder come to the table to agree to and abide by a common set of rules in the development and utilization of new technology. The United States must lead by example and hold China to the same global standards.

Yangyang Cheng is a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University’s Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based ScienceS and Education (CLASSE), and a member of the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

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