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16th Sep 2020

US revokes over 1,000 Chinese students’ visas due to national security concerns

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The US government’s decision to revoke the visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students due to national security concerns has been met by a warning of possible retaliatory action from China
  • The US is not the only country worried about Chinese access to sensitive research conducted at universities
  • US universities – many of which are heavily reliant on Chinese enrolments – may be increasingly challenged to recruit students in China if tensions continue or escalate further

Over the past three months, the US government has revoked the visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students who it deems to be “high-risk graduate students and research scholars” connected to China’s alleged aim to “acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernisation and capability of its military, the People's Liberation Army.”

A May 2020 Presidential Proclamation provides the basis for revoking the visas and reads in part:

“The People's Republic of China (PRC) is engaged in a wide-ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernisation and capability of its military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The PRC's acquisition of sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property to modernise its military is a threat to our Nation's long-term economic vitality and the safety and security of the American people.”

In response, Beijing says the move is grounded in racism and “blatant political persecution.” China's education ministry said it “resolutely opposes" the decision and “strongly condemns any calculated politicisation and stigmatisation of normal academic exchanges.”

More ominously, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has warned that “China reserves the right to take further actions.”

The May proclamation comes amid escalating tensions between the US and China. These tensions – already high due to continuing trade disputes between the two countries – have been inflamed recently by the US administration blaming the coronavirus pandemic on China and by China’s imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong – a decision that has resulted in sweeping sanctions that penalise US banks if they conduct business with Chinese officials.

National security at stake

The US government defends the move as necessary for national security, and while it hasn’t made public which Chinese students were affected, there is speculation that the students have some connection with seven Chinese universities with ties to the Chinese defense apparatus. The acting head of the US Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said that the affected students were “Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to China’s military fusion strategy” and their visas were revoked “to prevent them from stealing and otherwise appropriating sensitive research.” He then went further, saying  the decision would counter China’s “commitment to remake the world order in its own authoritarian image.”

Decision may dampen Chinese desire to study in the US

While the affected students represent only small fraction of Chinese students in US (474,500 Chinese students held US study visas in 2019), the removal of their visas sends a strong market signal to Chinese students considering studies at American institutions and schools. As of 2019, just over three in ten (31%) of all US study visas were held by Chinese students.

Among those publicly stating concern about how the US decision will affect the country’s reputation as a study destination is Dexter Roberts, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Asia Security Initiative. At a hearing arranged by the US-China Economic Security Review Commission, he stated:

“While being mindful of the real danger of technology theft, the US should stop singling out Chinese students with visa restrictions and once again make America the global choice for all international students.”

More than 50 affected Chinese students and researchers – many who were majoring in STEM subjects – gathered in a WeChat discussion room to share news of how they were informed. They said the emailed notices they received stated that their visas were suspended and that they would have to reapply for visas if they wanted to enter the US. One such student guessed that his past enrolment in the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (BUPT) was the basis for his visa being revoked. The student was in the midst of his last undergraduate year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he told Reuters, “I studied at BUPT before year two, but I have no connections with that university since.”

Some Chinese researchers have faced consequences more serious than their visas being suspended. Since May, the US has indicted – on federal charges – several Chinese scholars suspected of hiding their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) affiliation. One of those affected is Juan Tang, a cancer researcher who was arrested and charged with visa fraud for declaring on her visa application that she had not served in the Chinese military. The Justice Department countered that in fact she “is a uniformed officer” in the People’s Liberation Army, and Ms Tang is now being held in the Sacramento County Jail, pending legal proceedings.

Alleged racism and threats to academic freedom

Yangyang Cheng, a physicist from China who works for Cornell University, told USA Today that the US government’s hard line on Chinese researchers is adding to an already present climate of racism in the US:  

“We face not only the racial hostilities – and a lot of that has been heightened because of COVID-19. We’re seeing parallels between my birth country and my adopted home in their rhetoric towards science and scientists – how the state is claiming ownership over scientists themselves, as well as the work they produce. And that is deeply troubling."

Concerns not limited to the US

In Canada, the Commons Committee on Canada-China Relations heard testimony this summer by experts claiming that the technological development of China's surveillance network occurred in Canadian universities. Richard Fadden, former Canadian Security Intelligence (CSIS) director, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) I think we're a bit bonkers in that we don't really restrict the areas in which Chinese students can study.​”

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a top scientific expert in Canada who now researches China's science and technology strategy at the University of Ottawa, explains that as above-board and collaborative as Canadian-Chinese research in AI and robotics may seem, the reality is that, “In China, it's required that researchers partner with the military."

She notes, "What it means for Canadians is, if we're partnering with China on these areas, our R&D, government funded R&D often could be going directly to the Chinese military.”

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald conducted an investigation into the extent of Chinese-Australian supercomputer research. Supercomputer technology is used in advanced aircraft design, combat simulation and the testing of tactical nuclear weapons, notes the Herald. The investigation revealed that dozens of research publications have resulted from the research and that “much of that research found its way into new Chinese weapons systems or the surveillance networks employed by the Chinese regime.”

The head of Australia National University’s (ANU) National Security College, Richard Medcalf, told the Herald that “most Chinese research partnerships in Australia are above board” but that China also “has long had a comprehensive strategy of gathering knowledge globally to increase its technological and military edge, and that ranges from cyber all the way through to orthodox research links with foreign universities.”

In the UK, intelligence and security organisations MI5 and GCHQ have also issued warnings to UK universities.

For the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students studying abroad, the visa suspensions, arrests, and anti-Chinese rhetoric raise some new concerns to say the least.

Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University and China expert, told USA Today that while Chinese espionage is definitely happening and a serious concern, the way the Trump administration has framed the issue is "problematic, because it sweeps up anyone who has ties to China and subjects them to scrutiny.”

For additional background, please see:

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