Due to a proclamation issued by Donald Trump and continued by the Biden administration, U.S. consular officers are denying visas based on the Chinese universities attended by Chinese graduate students. New research shows the policy is costly to America. U.S. university personnel are alarmed. Educators and analysts ask whether the theoretical security benefits of the policy outweigh the loss of so many high-quality researchers who will no longer have an opportunity to contribute to U.S. higher education and the American economy. Since China’s government has wanted more top researchers to return to China, is the U.S. government now doing the Chinese government’s job for it?
A Costly Policy: The policy is costly to the United States. Every 1,000 Ph.D.’s blocked in a year from U.S. universities costs an estimated $210 billion in the expected value of patents produced at universities over 10 years and nearly $1 billion in lost tuition over a decade, according to an analysis from the National Foundation for American Policy. That does not include other economic costs, such as the loss of highly productive scientists and engineers prevented from working in the U.S. economy or patents and innovations produced outside university settings.
The research indicates a cost-benefit analysis is unlikely to find it is a good deal for America to block 1,000 to 5,000 (or more) Chinese graduate students a year from the United States, particularly given the lack of evidence presented that the policy of blocking graduate students produces economic benefits.
What the Proclamation Says: On May 29, 2020, Donald Trump issued presidential proclamation 10043 (PP10043) on the “Suspension of Entry as Nonimmigrants of Certain Students and Researchers from the People’s Republic of China.” The proclamation led to the State Department revoking many existing visas and denying other visas.
The proclamation denies entry to the United States of any nonimmigrant (temporary visa holder) from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on “an F or J visa to study or conduct research in the United States . . . and who either receives funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC that implements or supports the PRC’s ‘military-civil fusion strategy,’” according to the proclamation. “For the purposes of this proclamation, the term ‘military-civil fusion strategy’ means actions by or at the behest of the PRC to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC’s military capabilities.” (Emphasis added.) There is an exception for undergraduate students.
Understanding the Proclamation: At its core, the proclamation denies a visa to someone who studied at a particular university whether or not any negative information exists on the individual. That would seem to sweep up many people with no evidence the individuals possess bad intent. Strong consideration should be given to narrow the policy, say analysts. An analogy is if the Chinese (or any) government denied visas to Americans who studied at any U.S. university that “supports” a strategy the foreign government finds objectionable or that received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Over 900 U.S. universities received DOD funding in 2006, according to a 2007 report, yet the typical U.S. student at these universities has no connection to the U.S. military. U.S. universities compete for Pentagon research funding.
“In a recent discussion about the proclamation with an unnamed U.S. government contact, he specifically said that the methodology in all this was to directly punish the Chinese institution, not the actual Chinese national,” said one U.S. university official in an interview. The university official pointed out that one scholar denied a visa under the new policy actually received a Ph.D. from a U.S. university—and went on to teach in China—but he was denied a visa because his master’s degree was from Harbin Institute of Technology, which is listed as “Very High Risk/Top Secret” on the Australia-based China Defense Universities Tracker that appears to be a primary source the U.S. government is using to deny visas.
The problem is obvious: Even if the policy’s intent is to punish “China” or a Chinese entity, the most direct harm is inflicted upon the student or researcher, the U.S. university sponsoring or accepting the individual, and the U.S. economy or a future U.S. employer deprived of his or her services. Moreover, it makes little sense to assume U.S. universities are the only place in the world Chinese students can take classes or conduct research in certain fields.
A Chinese student pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science at a U.S. university told me in an interview, “It hurts to see the U.S. government say if you went to a certain university in China that means ‘you’re bad.’” Some of her research in the United States is designed to help limit the damage wildfires cause in California and elsewhere. She is afraid to leave the United States because it is likely she would be denied a visa to get back into the country, which would end her dream of completing her education in America and becoming a professor. Some family members have told her the current U.S. policy shows she will not be accepted in America even if she became a U.S. citizen.
In a June 2020 interview conducted shortly after the proclamation took effect, Jeffrey Gorsky, former Chief of the Legal Advisory Opinion section of the Visa Office in the State Department and an advisor to the National Foundation for American Policy, predicted the current impact. “There is already a longstanding program in place to vet potential students based on concerns over the transfer of sensitive technologies,” he said. “This proclamation will exclude persons from the United States based on past or minor associations with PRC entities even if the individuals pass the interagency clearance process. America will lose out on a valuable talent pool and the financial and scientific contributions these students make to U.S. universities and the United States.”
Earlier this year, Chinese national Chen Siyu was denied a visa due to the proclamation after being accepted for a Ph.D. program in epidemiology at the University of Florida. She believes the rejection was connected to her work as a research assistant at a major hospital affiliated with a military medical university, according to Science, and has entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Hong Kong.
The Scope of the Visa Denials: “To date, only one to two percent of all PRC student visa applicants have been refused under PP 10043, contrary to PRC state media suggestions that the policy is aimed at Chinese students writ large,” according to a U.S. State Department official on background. The State Department did not say what percentage of Chinese graduate students have been denied visas.
Based on the number of visas decided at U.S. consular posts in China since June 1, 2020, the 1% to 2% denial rate provided by the State Department suggests a range of 700 to 1,300 visas denied to date due to the proclamation. However, that understates the impact since it does not include applicants who may have decided not to pursue a visa after the proclamation was issued.
The policy is likely to block at least 3,000 to 5,000 Chinese graduate students a year, according to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. This estimate may be low, since it was made before information was available on how strictly the visa policy would be enforced and does not include individuals who choose to study in other countries in reaction to the proclamation.
“Thus far, we’ve had 11 graduate student denials and two visiting scholar denials,” said an official at one university in an interview. (All university personnel interviewed for this article requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic.) “For the students, two of the denials seem to be based on having China Scholarship Council (CSC) funding, whereas the other 9 seem to have attended universities in China that are on the military-fusion blacklist. The two denied scholars were likewise both on CSC funding. These denials are essentially all in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields including the usual suspects of computer science and engineering, but also in such disciplines as plant sciences, food sciences and business analytics.”
“On the scholar side of things, I think we have only seen the very tip of the proverbial iceberg as far as J-1 denials go,” said the university official. “Many of our new pipeline Chinese visiting scholars have yet to have their U.S. consular appointments, and many of them are funded by CSC. Certain departments on our campus have established long-standing relationships with Chinese academic talent and the CSC funding often is the difference-maker when it comes to extending invitations for collaborative research given that very little, if any, cost needs to be provided from the host department or faculty Principal Investigator funds. This could have a very significant impact on both solicitations and invitations for Chinese visiting scholars and it will inevitably result in a complete faculty rethink on the current model of utilizing Chinese scholars in labs and research projects.”
An official at another university said the school has seen denials based on the proclamation for 8 newly admitted Chinese graduate students applying for their first F-1 to begin this fall and 7 continuing students with expired F-1 visas who need a new visa to return to the US to continue their program this fall. The consular posts are specifically referencing the proclamation in the denials, according to the university official. “We had very few students denied visas in previous years, so this increase in denials directly linked to the proclamation is alarming,” said the official.
Officials at three other universities also told me they have seen denials that clearly reference the proclamation. “In one case the student applicant graduated from a subject institution 10 years ago with a bachelor’s degree,” said a university official. “In another, a current J-1 was denied a waiver no-objection letter, and now is too afraid to go home as she would have to renew her J-1 and would likely be denied based on her previous degree from a subject school.”
Does the Policy Hurt America More Than China? According to the State Department, “Key technologies being targeted under Military-Civil Fusion include, but are not limited to, quantum computing, big data, semiconductors, biotechnology, 5G, advanced nuclear technology, aerospace technology, and AI.”
Does that mean almost anyone from China who wants to study at the graduate level in such fields (or participate in research) would be denied a visa to the United States? If so, the policy contradicts the recommendations made in the Final Report of the Congressionally-mandated National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (AI). Eric Schmidt, former CEO and chairman of Google and cofounder of Schmidt Futures, chaired the commission. Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense, served as vice chair.
At a hearing, Schmidt noted many promising researchers in AI in the United States were born in China. “We looked at the question of how important are Chinese researchers for the AI effort, in our report, and it turns out the Chinese researchers are the number one authors on the key papers,” said Schmidt at a recent Congressional hearing. “If you were to get rid of all of them . . . you will, in fact, hurt America’s AI leadership.” In a report, Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology also pointed out the importance of Chinese-born researchers in American AI.
The implications for America of a policy to block graduate students from China in science and engineering fields should alarm anyone who examines data on the primary source of technology-related talent in America. International students represent over 70% of full-time graduate students enrolled at U.S. universities in science and engineering in key fields, and most of those students are from China and India.
Sixty-eight percent of international graduate students in science and engineering were from China and India in the Fall 2018, according to the National Science Foundation. International students from India enrolled in graduate-level computer science and engineering at U.S. universities declined by more than 25% between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 academic years, with many Indian students choosing Canada over the United States.
Blocking (or discouraging) Chinese graduate students in science and engineering would likely leave America’s future talent pipeline in dire conditions. Chinese graduate students account for 63% of the international graduate students in mathematics and statistics, 40% in physical sciences, 36% in engineering and iological sciences and 26% in computer science in the 2018-19 academic year.
Denis Simon, a professor at Duke University, told Science that “slowing the flow of Chinese students will harm the United States, where they help sustain many research programs.” Simon said, “It’s a pipeline that has been built over 40 years, and by deconstructing it, we will do some very serious damage to our ability to have the kind of talent needed to drive our innovation system forward.”
Rory Truex, an assistant professor at Princeton University, believes current policies are an overreaction and will backfire on the United States. “Existing policy solutions, which focus primarily on investigations and visa restrictions, represent an overcorrection and will likely erode the primacy of American science in the long term,” according to Truex. In a paper, he proposes a series of alternative policies that would address security concerns without denying U.S. universities and the U.S. economy access to talent born in China. These policies include no dual-salaries (with foreign entities that cause strategic concern) for U.S. university personnel, centralized disclosure for faculty activities and conflicts of interest and pre-travel counterintelligence training for U.S. citizens traveling to China.
“There is insufficient evidence that academic/economic espionage by Chinese nationals is a widespread problem at U.S. universities,” writes Truex. “After 20 months of ongoing investigations in 2019 and 2020, the ‘China Initiative’—a Department of Justice (DOJ) effort—had brought formal charges at only ten U.S. universities or research institutions, and only three cases involved any evidence of espionage, theft, or transfer of intellectual property. Given that there are about 107,000 Chinese citizens in STEM [fields] at U.S. universities at the graduate level or above, current DOJ charges imply a criminality rate in this population of .0000934, less than 1/10,000.”
Even formal charges do not mean successful prosecution. In late July, the Washington Post reported, “The Justice Department this week dropped prosecutions of five foreign researchers accused of concealing ties to China’s military and who were arrested last year in a highly publicized sweep against alleged Chinese spying in the United States.”
Senior Justice Department officials were defensive about dropping the cases. “This is not the same as saying that we were wrong to charge the case a year ago or that the proof was insufficient,” said one senior official, speaking [to the Washington Post] on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the department. “In fact, I think the cases have done a lot to advance our deterrent objectives.”
Tellingly, the Washington Post added, “The official pointed to an exodus of more than 1,000 researchers, who department officials said had apparently hidden their ties to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and fled the United States after the arrests last summer.” (Note the vague word “ties” is used by U.S. government officials rather than “working for.”)
The Thousand Talents recruitment program started by China’s government in 2008 encourages Chinese scientists overseas to return to China and, more generally, for talented Chinese-born scientists to work in China rather than the United States. Based on current U.S. policies, it is reasonable to ask: Do the U.S. government and the Chinese government now have the same goal?