Vintage engraving of Chinese emigrants being attacked by locals, San Francisco, 19th Century. Photo: iStock

In a policy change that took effect on June 12, the Trump administration has moved to shorten visas for Chinese students in fields like tech and engineering. The new policy will allow US officials to put a one-year cap on visas for Chinese graduate students who are studying in fields such as robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing. This policy applies only to Chinese students. Once again, a single country and race is being targeted. It echoes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Chinese first arrived in this country in small numbers in the 19th century, fleeing their homes as immigrants typically do because of the contrast between the hardship of home and the promise of America. That changed when gold was discovered in California. By the mid-1850s, more than 100,000 arrived, first to work in gold mines and later to lay down the transcontinental railroad.

While initially they were tolerated, things changed once the railroad was built and their labor was no longer needed for what had been a truly gargantuan feat. Because of an economic recession in the 1870s, many laid-off workers could not find jobs. The Chinese were the perfect scapegoat as they had no voice in America. Politicians took advantage and xenophobia took over, which led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was claimed that the Chinese were perpetual aliens and different from Christian America and could never be assimilated. The Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943 after China became a much-needed ally in the war against Japan. Then the rhetoric flipped: the Chinese were described as valiant fighters and Japanese-Americans were vilified and unlawfully held in internment camps.

Fast forward to China’s renaissance in the past three decades, now perceived by some to be a threat. Senator Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants, warned that China poses the single greatest threat to our national security and that students and academicians are another weapon they use against us in their campaign to steal and cheat their way to world domination. Rubio asked FBI Director Christopher Wray in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on February 15 to comment. Wray said:  “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. So it’s not just the intelligence community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of the defense.”

As we’ve seen in American history, when another nation is vilified, people who come from that nation, and their descendants, are endangered. It was bad enough for, say, Germans in the 20th century. But it is always worse when race is involved

Wray’s testimony suggests that all Chinese are threats. And as we’ve seen in American history, when another nation is vilified, people who come from that nation, and their descendants, are endangered. It was bad enough for, say, Germans in the 20th century. But it is always worse when race is involved.

Recent cases against Sherry Chen and Dr Xi  Xiaoxing are cases in point. They were wrongly accused of spying for China. Both cases were dismissed without merit but at terrible cost to them in lost income and legal expenses, as well as reputational damage that affected their careers. And these cases are not isolated. In 2000 Dr Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese who was one of many ethnic Chinese working at our vitally important national labs, was similarly accused of spying for China. While the judge and even the New York Times apologized, Dr Lee’s career was essentially destroyed.

America’s employment rate may be at an extraordinarily low level, but it is well known that the talent coming from our nation’s education system is often a mismatch with job openings, especially careers encompassing science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Chinese workers, and workers from elsewhere in Asia, have been the backbone of innovation in our nation. If our nation’s policy cannot recognize them in the American spirit of fairness, then it should recognize that these people are assets that we can ill afford to squander.

Back in 1990, when China was still very poor its students could not afford to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE ) required to apply to graduate schools. Instead, Dr TD Lee, the Nobel winner, used Columbia’s PhD qualifying exam as a proxy for undergraduates in China. Each year 100 of the brightest students who passed the exam came and studied at the best universities in the US. That program was called CUSPEA (China-US Physics Examination and Admission.) In 10 years a total of 915 students passed through this program. Only a few returned to China. In effect, we gained the best and brightest from China, which a major brain drain for the country. Now we want to stop Chinese from attending American colleges. Why are we allowing US policy to work against our own national interest again?

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Richard King

Dr Richard L King is a retired investment banker and venture capitalist. He received his PhD in nuclear physics from New York University and also attended Stern Graduate School of Business at NYU. He was an instructor of nuclear physics at the US Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY, a trustee of the China Institute, a member of the Science Advisory Board at NYU and a director of the Committee of 100. Originally from Shanghai, Dr King is a grandson, on both sides of his family, of two of the...

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