The United States Can’t Afford to Turn Away Chinese Talent

Discrimination aimed at foreign students will only harm American competitiveness.

By Elsa B. Kania and Lindsay Gorman, a fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
International students from China in California
International students Yaqing "Victoria" Yang and Ende Shen of China study together at a sidewalk table in the Silicon Valley city of Palo Alto, California, on March 12. Glenn Chapman/AFP via Getty Images

The pandemic threatens a reckoning in U.S.-China relations. COVID-19’s arrival has highlighted the range of risks that can arise from the connectivity between the two countries. American policymakers are grappling with complex questions about how to recalibrate the character of U.S.-China economic interdependence and technological entanglement. But some of the answers that have been proposed are far too simple and may backfire on U.S. competitiveness.

As the consensus among American policymakers shifts toward seeing China as a competitor, even an adversary, continuing to welcome Chinese students and scientists to the United States has come to seem risky or threatening to U.S. technological leadership. For instance, U.S. President Donald Trump is reported to have claimed in reference to China that “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.” Sen. Tom Cotton also recently recommended excluding Chinese postgraduate students from critical technology disciplines: “If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.” In a May 7 letter, he and three other Republican senators called for restrictions on immigration that would include the suspension of H-1B visas and the curbing of the Optional Practical Training program, which allows foreign students to work in the United States after graduating.

Intellectual property theft is a real concern, and China has been the world’s foremost infringer. But a blanket exclusion of Chinese students from U.S. academic and scientific research is not a reasonable response—and risks harming America’s critical comparative advantage: the strength and vitality of its research enterprise and innovation ecosystem. Implementing such a blunt cudgel would undermine the very engine of innovation that it seeks to protect, at a time when the United States is engaged in an ongoing and intensifying competition for global talent.

Certainly, both Republican and Democratic U.S. policymakers are right to be exploring options to take action against technology transfer. China’s party-state has undertaken extensive campaigns of industrial espionage over decades to enable the transfer of critical technologies and the theft of intellectual property from the United States. Such efforts have corresponded with Beijing’s strategic priorities, including self-driving cars and semiconductors. Among a range of tactics, academic exchanges and research partnerships can be leveraged to those ends. Such efforts can bolster China’s military modernization or facilitate party-state coercive capabilities that enable human rights atrocities, thus threatening U.S. security and principles.

Universities have not been immune to these efforts. There have been incidents in which Chinese researchers at American universities have exploited academic openness. In several instances, members of the Chinese military have ended up at or working with U.S. universities, including recently a Chinese lieutenant who had concealed her military affiliation to conduct research at Boston University. Chinese military research institutions have also sent abroad and actively recruited students and scientists based on their experience at leading research institutions around the world.

Yet addressing this problem calls for a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. Instead of blanket bans, the focus of U.S. concerns and policy responses should be on how to counter the tactics and mechanisms that China’s party-state exploits for tech transfer. Targeted measures to mitigate risk can allow the U.S. academic research enterprise to continue to thrive and to remain open and attractive in the rivalry for global talent.

So far, the United States is winning that competition by a landslide. Contrary to the perception that Chinese graduates of U.S. institutions usually leave, the proportion of Chinese Ph.D. students who remain in the United States after graduation remains high. Data collected by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology estimate that 91 percent of Chinese Ph.D. students in artificial intelligence stay in the United States for at least five years after graduating—despite the challenges that securing visas already involves. The United States can reap benefits to its innovation ecosystem from welcoming these students.

As Silicon Valley firms that compete among themselves for the top engineers well know, the ability to attract, motivate, and retain top talent is the driving factor of success in innovation. The same is true of nation-states in the 21st century. U.S. research remains the world’s envy precisely because it can draw on the world’s talent. The desire to study, learn, work, and ultimately immigrate to the United States is one of the largest components of its soft power, which can provide a key edge in today’s technological competition with China if it is sustained and carefully cultivated.

Cutting off the science and technology talent flow from China to the United States would hand China’s party-state the gift of a forfeit in this part of that contest. While U.S. policymakers worry about the exfiltration of research from the United States, the Chinese government has been highly concerned about brain drain to the United States, especially in artificial intelligence. The very talent plans and initiatives, like China’s Thousand Talents Program, that have provoked much concern in U.S. policy debates have been attempts to reduce and reverse that loss—to promote “brain gain” instead. While the Chinese government has tried to attract foreign talent, these efforts tend to have limited success, including because of the difficulties that international researchers experience in adjusting to life and the constraints of living in China.

Going forward, a stronger and more competitive strategy for the United States would employ proactive, but carefully targeted policy action. For one, there is a strong rationale to enhance scrutiny in visa screening, and more rigorous screening could ensure that researchers who have ties to foreign militaries, such as the People’s Liberation Army, or to foreign security services and intelligence organizations would be denied the opportunity to study in the United States in the first place. Improving such screening in a fair and evidence-based manner would require increasing the resources of and ensuring that the appropriate authorities are available to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, while promoting greater coordination among stakeholders, as well as improved leveraging of open-source information.

U.S. law enforcement and counterintelligence can also institutionalize collaborative engagement with American universities to promote best practices for risk mitigation on campuses, including creating clear points of contact for exchange and the reporting of concerns. And universities should introduce more robust and consistent requirements for disclosure of foreign funding and promote greater transparency. At the same time, for such efforts to be effective and consistent with civil rights, U.S. initiatives to prevent and punish the theft of research or intellectual property must also be careful to mitigate the risks of and introduce safeguards against bias or racial targeting.

American policymakers and university administrators must take care that the United States remains an attractive destination for foreign students and immigrant researchers. To do so requires standing against and condemning incidents of hostility toward Chinese students. Xenophobia runs counter to America’s core principles and damages the competitiveness of its global offering.

At the same time, thoughtful reforms, not simply restrictions, to the U.S. immigration system are urgently needed. In particular, increasing the number of H-1B visas offered for employers and expediting the green card process for graduates in high-priority disciplines could enhance U.S. capacity to retain STEM Ph.D. graduates who may be forced to depart otherwise. Similarly, the Optional Practical Training program should not be targeted but rather expanded and perhaps modified to create a more viable pathway to permanent residency and citizenship for those graduates from high-priority disciplines who participate. Indeed, one study found that curbing the program could cause a decline in GDP, increase unemployment, and adversely impact entrepreneurship.

Ultimately, the United States is stronger when it can not only welcome but also harness global talent, including from China. Banning students and Chinese researchers from academic science would give the Chinese Communist Party a victory.

Elsa B. Kania is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. Her research primarily concentrates on U.S.-China relations, Chinese military modernization, and emerging technologies. Her views are her own. Twitter: @EBKania

Lindsay Gorman is a fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @LindsayPGorman