Chinese students at Columbia University in New York celebrating their graduation. Photo: Xinhua

In February 2018, US Senator Marco Rubio asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to comment on the counterintelligence risk posed by Chinese students in the US. Wray basically said China was responsible for not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat.

In other words, every person of Chinese ethnicity, foreign or American, is a potential spy. Since then Wray has consistently hewed to that point of view in his public speeches and testimony.

What Wray said was nothing new but merely a reflection of institutional racial bias that has characterized the US Federal Bureau of Investigation since its inception. J Edgar Hoover, the first FBI director and a man known for his homophobic bias, saw a commie under every bed and every minority person as a security threat.

But it could be said that Wray’s exchange at the congressional hearing with the smirking Rubio marked the beginning of turning the surveillance screws on Chinese in America be they visitors from China or permanent residents in the US.

The consequent collateral damage from the clampdown has been on prominent Chinese-American scientists and on the long-term interests of America. For certain, these developments won’t make America great again.

Emory dismissals

The most recent victims of apparent xenophobia were a husband-and-wife team doing work at the medical school of Emory University in Atlanta. Professor Li Xiaojiang has been a tenured professor since 2005. He and his co-director wife, Li Shihua, contributed breakthrough research on Huntington’s disease through genetic engineering, as one of their notable contributions.

Their abrupt dismissal and shutdown of their laboratory came as a shock. The explanation points to White House pressure on the National Institutes of Health to crack down on the possibility of sharing of research results with China.

Last August, NIH director Francis Collins sent a letter to more than 10,000 American institutes warning about “foreign entities interfering in funding, research and peer review of NIH projects.”

Even though Li’s laboratory received US$1.7 million from the NIH as recently as fiscal 2018, it would appear that holding dual academic appointments in China and Emory has suddenly became unacceptable and qualifies as interference as defined by Collins.

The Lis have been visiting and teaching in China since 2007 and they claimed that they have always reported their activities in China to Emory. Under the traditions of normal international academic exchange, it was not a problem, but it is now because of xenophobic policies instituted by the Donald Trump administration.

According to the university, “Emory also takes very seriously its obligation to be a good steward of federal research dollars and to ensure compliance with all funding disclosures and other requirements.” Apparently to the Emory leadership, the threat of agencies withholding federal funding outweighs the importance of academic freedom and human decency.

Prior to Emory’s dismissal of the Lis, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center also responded to the NIH letter and began to take action against three Chinese-American scientists, two of whom elected to resign rather than endure the review process.

These are medical research projects whose objectives are to benefit the human race, for heaven’s sake.

Climate change scientist victimized

Perhaps one of the most sensational recent cases was that of Wang Chunzai, another naturalized American citizen. A onetime much published and decorated climate scientist and longtime employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he was arrested and charged with accepting payment from China, apparently an expense reimbursement of about $2,000 that he failed or forgot to report.

By the time his case came to trial, Wang told his lawyer that he wanted to cop a plea to one felony charge and move on with his life. His defense counsel and the prosecuting attorney settled on dismissing all other charges in exchange for a guilty plea to one count for time already served, which amounted to the one night when he was arrested.

The presiding judge was reluctant to make Wang a convicted felon, but Wang explained that once he was arrested, he knew his future in the US was cooked, and he had already lined up a job in China. He couldn’t risk losing his appointment in China because of a lengthy trial.

Wang is now a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and leading a group doing climate research. This is the kind of work he loves, and he will be doing it in a country that believes in the need to understand climate change. This is far more important to him than being labeled a convicted felon in the US.

Before Trump’s election, it was accepted practice that Chinese-American scientists – and non-ethnic Chinese as well – could collaborate with counterparts in China, consistent with the tradition of open academic exchange. Many prominent professors in the US held dual appointments. To encourage more visiting scientists, Beijing even instituted a “Thousand Talents” program.

Thousand Talents: lightning rod for persecution

The Trump China team considers the Thousand Talents Program a way for China to gain access to US technology and knowledge. Thus known participants in the program are targeted for investigation and subsequent prosecution. Ironically, profiling those in the talents program actually facilitates China’s recruitment.

For example, when the Lis were dismissed by Emory, a university in southern China where the couple regularly visited immediately extended an employment offer for them to continue their work. The offer came with a fully equipped laboratory and even employment for every member of their research team left stranded by Emory.

It would appear that history is repeating itself. In the 1950s during the hysteria of McCarthyism, the US government hounded the brilliant rocket scientist Qian Xuesen, a Chinese-American co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab. His plan was always to stay in the US but the federal government basically gift-wrapped him and sent him to Beijing, where he went on to lead China’s missile and rocket development.

If the US now considers China a military threat, it has the late senator Joe McCarthy to thank.

Seeing that the US continues to push the best and brightest out of the country, the next generation of best and brightest from China are losing interest in coming to the US to study. This trend hurts America in at least two ways.

Discouraging Chinese students

China has been the source of around one-third of all the international students entering the US, and more Chinese students major in science, technology, engineering or math, so-called STEM, than any other nationality. If they stop coming, many research labs will dry up for lack of graduate students to do the work. Lower-tiered schools will also face budget constraints as they are deprived of the full tuition fees that foreign students pay.

China, with four times the population of the US, generates more than 10 times the number of university graduates in STEM than the US. Rather than discouraging Chinese students from coming, the US should be devising ways to skim off the best and brightest and entice them to come.

It’s possible the Luddites in the Trump administration do not understand that students do not come to steal but to work on furthering the knowledge of STEM. They probably also assume that the US continue to hold the keys to all scientific advances, even those developed by immigrants from all over.

In reality, the work by graduates and postdoctoral fellows benefits the school they attend and the country they reside in.

Consistent with their ignorance, the Trump team are making it more difficult for students from China to obtain visas in a timely manner, and perhaps not at all after unexplained delays.

Cao Yuan is the latest victim. He is a prodigy from China now pursuing a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was voted by the prestigious journal Nature as the first of the 10 people who mattered (in science) in 2018.

Cao discovered that he could achieve superconductivity at room temperature with twisted graphene sheets. In China for a home visit, the visa office at the US consulate is apparently holding up his visa that would enable his return to the US.

It’s not as if Chinese graduate students have to study in the US as a necessary precondition to success. Pan Jianwei did his graduate work in physics in Vienna. He helped China launch the world’s first quantum science satellite to establish hack-proof communication between China and Europe.

His adviser in Vienna was his collaborator. They named the satellite Micius, the Latinized name of Mozi, a 5th-century-BC Chinese scientist, a subtle reminder that China was doing science long before there was a United States of America.

What matters is that having to deal with the capricious nature of US visa offices, Chinese students are increasingly favoring other countries over the US. Someday the US may come to realize that it needed the students from China more than the students needed to study in the US.

Liu Yuanli, currently the dean of Peking Union Medical College, School of Public Health, was at one time first dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health. He said, “The restrictions on Chinese scholars and students are irrational and go against the very core value that makes US a great nation.”

Superconductivity that does not require near-absolute-zero cooling would be a breakthrough on the level of cold fusion and the magic bullet for tumor cells. Just think, whether commercial application of room-temperature superconductivity will be first introduced in China or in the US could depend on the whim of some American visa-granting clerk.

That visa clerk may not understand the significance of Cao’s discovery any more than the White House does. Sad.

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