The 2010 Census found that the Asian population grew faster than any other race group in the US in the preceding decade. Photo: iStock
The 2010 Census found that the Asian population grew faster than any other race group in the US in the preceding decade. Photo: iStock

A number of commentators, including Asia Times’ own Pepe Escobar, have suggested that the trade war started by the Trump administration is not about intellectual-property theft or unfair trade but about not losing the technology race with China.

Escobar believes Trump is feeling threatened by China’s stated goals to become the world leader in 10 fields of technology by 2025. CNBC agrees, though more narrowly focused on who will win the race to develop fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology.

One way to slow China down is to grant one-year visas to its students wishing to pursue graduate studies in the US. Since most PhD programs take four to five years to complete, having to renew their visa every year and be subject to arbitrary rejection would discourage some from applying to US universities.

The processing of visas at US consulates in China has also gotten murky lately. PhD researchers planning to present their research findings at national technical conferences in the US are finding the visa-approval process delayed without explanation. In some cases by the time they got their visa, it was too late to attend the conference.

Folks like US Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray and Senator Marco Rubio might privately snicker and applaud these tactics as ways of deterring “non-traditional” intelligence collection, but the actual consequences will be more seriously damaging to US national interest.

US universities need STEM students from China

Every year, about one-third of international students coming to the US for graduate studies are from China. Most of them major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Graduates of these majors are most needed for the US to maintain its technology leadership, and these are the same majors that many kids born and raised in the US find too challenging and thus avoid.

Graduate schools of major universities depend on students from China to staff their research programs and uphold the quality of work. Without them, many of the graduate schools would shrivel and survival would become problematic.

The claim that tens of thousands of students from China are sent to spy is nonsense and arises from xenophobia. Graduate research advances the boundaries of human knowledge. Such research does not get involved in militarily sensitive or national-security-related work unless the researchers qualify for appropriate levels of clearance.

Often overlooked is that in the past, most of these students upon completion of their advanced degrees have remained in the US to work. Silicon Valley would be a mere shadow of itself if Chinese with advanced technical degrees had not chosen to accept positions at Apple, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft and others.

Just a bit over 10 years ago, Don Pryzbyla, the FBI special agent in charge of Silicon Valley, said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that his enormous challenge was to keep track of around a hundred thousand Chinese working in the San Francisco Bay Area because they were all potential spies for China.

As if buying Pryzbyla’s line of thinking, the administration of US President Donald Trump is now figuring out different ways of discouraging Chinese from remaining in the US and pushing them back to China. Instead of sticking around to add to America’s edge in technology, they will contribute to China’s instead. How smart is that?

Racial bias hurts Americans with Asian ancestry

America’s racial discrimination doesn’t just apply to students from China, but ethnic Asians with US citizenship feel the same sting. As a recent study revealed, Chinese-Americans are especially susceptible to false arrest, accusations of espionage, and jail time only to have charges dropped or dismissed.

Unfortunately for the Chinese-Americans victimized by such incidents of false arrest, they almost never receive compensation for the damage done to their reputations and careers. They simply do not get justice.

Sherry Chen is the latest example of atrocious miscarriage of justice. She was arrested, put in jail and accused of spying for China. Before her arrest, she was an award-winning hydrologist working for the National Weather Service. After the charges were dropped, the Department of Commerce (which has oversight over NWS) would not let her return to work.

With the support of the Asian-American community, Chen took her case before the Merit Systems Protection Board, the judiciary body that addresses complaints from federal employees. Historically, the MSPB had ruled in favor of the plaintiff less than 2% of the time. Yet Chen won. The presiding judge wrote a 135-page opinion that overwhelmingly ruled in her favor.

This should have been the bittersweet happy ending for Chen, but it was not to be. Despite a letter from a congressional caucus and another from more than 130 Asian-American organizations to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross urging rectification for Chen, a Commerce Department spokesman said on June 18 that it would appeal the MSPB decision.

The announcement gave no new arguments that would justify the cynical decision to appeal.

With the bench lacking appointments to replace missing members, the Commerce Department knows that the MSPB panel does not have enough judges to form a quorum and rule on the appeal. It will be years before the appeal can be heard. In the meantime, Chen will not get her job back, not her back pay, and will remain in limbo.

Sherry Chen is totally in the right, but because she is a Chinese-American, justice is not served. That’s the way it is in the US.

Chinese-American kids punch above their weight

However, if the US hopes to maintain its technological edge over China in the years to come, Congress and the federal government need to face an inconvenient reality. Asian-Americans make up less than 6% of the population but earn more than 25% of all the STEM PhDs awarded in the US every year.

A recent article in The New Yorker reported that Asian students made up 16% of the public school student body but occupied 62% of the enrollment to the elite high schools of New York City. Admission to those schools is based on competitive test scores.

Rather than wrinkle their noses at the supposed personality flaws of Asian kids, white Americans need to encourage their development and not penalize them by depriving them of opportunities for superior higher education.

We now live in a world of fast-developing and ever changing frontiers in technology. It’s time the American white mainstream abandons century-old racial bias against Asian-Americans and reconcile with the reality that the future of the United States will need every one of these Asian-American kids to realize his or her full potential.

George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield's, a novel green building platform.

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