America, keep your China witch hunt out of academia

The West has never understood China. Since Marco Polo, it has shrouded China in Orientalism and otherizing mystique. Centuries of the Chinese Empire ended with the overthrow of the Qing; civil wars erupted; the Japanese invaded; and a communist state rose from the ashes. America, threatened with the near-continental communist blocs of the People’s Republic and the Soviet Union, grew increasingly anxious about its status as the leader of the free world and fanned the flames of McCarthyist paranoia. 

Seventy years later, a strong stance toward China still seems to be one of the few positions that crosses the partisan divide. Democrats and Republicans agree, for example, that Chinese companies have short-circuited the traditional route to economic development by aggressively stealing innovation from US corporations and research institutions.

This political atmosphere cultivates a broader hysteria which trickles down from the geopolitical to the mundane: Confucius Institutes, which teach the Chinese language, are being banned at American universities. The Hoover Institution at Stanford suggested that there is a need to be cautious of the Chinese diaspora as the Chinese government leverages them for China’s national interests. Meanwhile, Chinese and Chinese-American PhD students are often uncomfortable at social gatherings, even here at Stanford. They are looked at twice, and  the perpetual question on everyone’s minds can clearly be felt: “Are you with us—or are you with them?”

America’s hesitation toward allowing Chinese students and researchers to access U.S. institutions stems from fears of intellectual property theft. Yes, the concern here is valid, but research shows that China had actually been improving its record in recent years, even before the Trump administration shined a spotlight on the problem. The Trump administration doubled down on the narrative of intellectual property theft, conjuring images of Chinese spies leaking U.S. research left, right, and center while swearing their allegiance to Chairman Xi. Still, these cases are few and far between. The vast majority of Chinese international students are simply here—like everyone else—because they want a better education, to engage in good faith with a culture unlike their own. 

In any case, anti-Chinese paranoia continues to bleed into universities and research institutions across the United States. Even at Stanford, Chinese academics have faced discrimination—from increased scrutiny at policy meetings to sideways glances in casual discussions about US-China relations. In a public address to the MIT community, L. Raphael Reif expressed concern over how a wide range of researchers and students, in their dealing with U.S. governmental bodies, feel “scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge”. Conversely, the Chinese government began advising scholars to strongly weigh the risks of going to America before even deciding to study abroad. 

Unlike American paranoia, the fears of Chinese researchers are founded. Visa denials, restrictions, and revocations for Chinese nationals have increased at alarming rates. The constant fear of your visa being revoked, coupled with months- and even years-long delays in visa processing are valid reasons to reconsider ever developing your research career in the United States, as in the case of one aerospace engineer who decided not to accept his American PhD offer due to repeated visa denials. Recently, White House hawks have revoked the visas of over 1000 Chinese students who supposedly had ties to the military, though this even included students who attended a local high school with a vaguely military-sounding name. 

Anti-Chinese paranoia affects even those who have devoted their careers to the US military. Wei Su, once a senior official in the US Army, personally developed critical software for the NSA and contributed dozens of new patents to the US economy. His evident loyalty to the U.S. did not stop the government from constantly monitoring his conversations. On account of a “suspicious” conversation in Chinese, he was arrested in his home by a SWAT team. (After further investigations by the Pentagon, this was proven to be a false alarm.)

At some point, the United States has to realize that there is no quick fix to its China problem. Imposing sanctions may be as easy as pushing a big red button for Trump, but he cannot sanction China back to the 1950s. The multifaceted problem of intellectual property theft cannot be solved by targeting researchers of Chinese descent and spying on Chinese nationals within the US. Such policies are hallmarks of the Trump administration’s simplistic thinking—more emblematic of the desire to keep the United States “number one” and to unite Americans against a supposed “common enemy” than a concerted effort to resolve tensions between the two nations. 

The path forward is paved with engagement, which means not burning one of the most important bridges of cultural and economic exchange: education. The full-rate tuition Chinese international students pay prop up a significant part of the US economy, and these students are able to bring their newly-gained perspectives back to China so that future generations of workers and business leaders on both sides know how to interact with each other, deepening cooperation and economic integration. More than anything, studying in the same classrooms and talking late into the night in the same dorms add a crucial, human touch to international relations—it is a reminder that for all our differences in culture and politics, we are all fundamentally the same. 

America and China—two of the world’s biggest intellectual powerhouses—have the capability to continue their cooperative efforts in solving some of the globe’s most pressing problems, but have instead opted for Cold War-style intellectual rivalry. Attempts to curb intellectual property theft and solve the trade deficit by targeting academics is not only inefficient, but un-American.

Enshia Li

Image credit: James Wasserman/Stanford Report

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