The Trump Administration Is Wrong About Chinese International Students

Chinese international students actively contribute to the United States’ economy and society. Yet U.S. President Donald J. Trump has proclaimed Chinese international students “spies,” and, in early December, the White House announced that it was considering expanding the vetting process of Chinese students applying for visas. Particularly in the wake of the June 2018 State Department decision to restrict visasfor Chinese graduate students in sensitive research fields, many Chinese students now fear that their visas will be denied and they will be unable to continue their research. As a result, a higher proportion of these students and scholars are turning back to China. In 2017, eight out of 10 Chinese students returned home after studying abroad, compared to three out of 10 in 2007.                                           

Even visiting Chinese scholars in the United States are encountering a less friendly environment. In November 2018, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine cancelled its visiting scientist program “due to concerns voiced by the National Institute of Health about threats to biomedical research and loss of intellectual property.” The message was loud and clear; Chinese students and scholars are no longer welcome in the United States because they are viewed as direct threats to American prosperity.

Chinese corporate giants recognize the changing political climate and are reaching out more aggressively to Chinese students abroad. Companies regularly recruit students studying overseas and Chinese Americans who have already settled in the United States, urging them to return home. For instance, Huawei, one of the world’s largest telecommunications and consumer electronics companies, has established specific recruitment processes for Chinese students studying abroad. Hoping to take advantage of the global experience and skills that Chinese international students bring, Huawei uses its prestige as a leading Chinese company to attract what it calls “worldly-minded applicants:” “We are the champion of our time and world. Wherever you are, we look forward to meeting you!” (我们是时代格局的佼佼者。无论你身处何处,我们期待与你相逢!) Not long ago, I was surprised to find a recruitment message in my LinkedIn inbox from Huawei inviting me to become a “diplomat” in their government relations department.

It is sensible for the United States to take action to protect against the Chinese government or private companies’ efforts to use Chinese nationals to carry out intellectual property theft. Both official trade talks between Xi and Trump or sanctions against companies accused of stealing American technology are important measures to defend U.S. national interests. However, ostracizing U.S.-educated Chinese scholars will only reinforce the idea that returning to China is their best, and only, option.

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