The Trump administration plans to cancel the visas of Chinese graduate students and researchers who have direct ties to universities in China affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army, a decision that will only affect a small percentage of the approximately 370,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. The move was praised by some as a smart approach to mitigating the risk of theft of sensitive research and criticized by others as an overly blunt and likely ineffective measure that could open the door for further restrictions on Chinese students.
News of the administration's plan was reported by The New York Times, which said at least 3,000 students would be affected. The Times noted that U.S. "officials acknowledged there was no direct evidence that pointed to wrongdoing by the students who are about to lose their visas. Instead, suspicions by American officials center on the Chinese universities at which the students trained as undergraduates."
Administration officials did not provide a list of affected universities to The New York Times, and the State Department did not respond to a request from Inside Higher Ed seeking the list.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida who has been vocal in raising concerns about the Chinese Communist Party's links to American universities, praised the visa cancellations on Twitter.
“Good move to address #China using some students at our universities to steal research & advance military capabilities,” he said. “This must be addressed in a targeted way while rejecting xenophobia.”
Alex Joske, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who studies military links of Chinese universities, also praised the move, calling it “groundbreaking precedent” and arguing that other countries should do the same in a series of Twitter posts. Joske -- who argued in a 2018 report on Chinese military collaborations with foreign universities that there is “little evidence that universities are making any meaningful distinction between collaboration with the Chinese military and the rest of their collaboration with China” -- said the U.S. government move “will be an important step towards greater emphasis on scrutinizing end users.”
Joske noted, however, that it can be difficult to draw the line in terms of which universities are considered to have military ties.
“PLA and the '7 Sons of National Defense' are easy,” he said, referencing seven Chinese universities known for their defense and military ties. “But what about Tsinghua? It's China's leading engineering university but also involved in military work.”
Remco Zwetsloot, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology who studies technology talent flows and policies, similarly said it's hard to define whether a university is affiliated with the military.
“There are different ways that one could define military connections to the PLA in China; obviously it’s a very opaque system and there’s a way to cast a very broad net and there’s a way to cast a very narrow net,” he said. “From the numbers in The New York Times report it seems like they cast a fairly narrow net, but without the list of institutions it’s hard to tell exactly.”
"I don’t think this is going to be the final word on this question," Zwetsloot added. "I think there are probably a lot of people within U.S. policy circles who would like the net to be cast a little wider."
Mary Gallagher, director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, said the plan “will be counterproductive and ineffective all at the same time.”
She said "it will further lower the reputation of American universities among Chinese students and parents, the vast majority of whom are private citizens seeking a better education for their kids. And it will be ineffective because in China the educational system is state-owned and it’s Party-dominated, so you can’t use this kind of mechanism to restrict students with sensitive government connections or Party connections. You would have to do a more targeted restriction of Chinese students in certain areas of research and I think that’s already happened,” she said, referencing export control laws by way of example.
Clare Robinson, director of advocacy for Scholars at Risk, which advocates for academic freedom, said the U.S. plan is "severely concerning."
"I completely agree that intellectual property issues are a concern, but they need to be dealt with in a much more refined and evidence-based manner than it appears is happening in this case," she said. "I would also say that the universities should be involved in the conversation as to how to mitigate these concerns."
The news of the visa cancellations comes in the context of broader efforts in Washington to restrict Chinese students. Two Republican senators and a Republican congressman on Wednesday announced legislation that would bar all Chinese nationals from receiving student or research visas to the United States for graduate or postgraduate studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Representative David Kustoff, also of Tennessee, described the legislation as intended to combat espionage and intellectual property theft on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.
Though the proposed legislation is unlikely to become law any time soon, its introduction raised concerns among many who criticized a broad-based ban based on nationality and argued such a ban would hurt U.S. science. Chinese nationals accounted for 13.5 percent of all of the 42,227 students earning doctorates in science and engineering fields at U.S. universities in 2018.
"The U.S. depends greatly on talented and skilled graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from all parts of the world, including the People’s Republic of China," the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology said in a statement. "This legislation, if passed, would erode the collaborative nature of scientific research that yields new discoveries and medicines at a time when we need them the most."
Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said while concerns about intellectual property theft by the Chinese government are valid, cases need to be evaluated "based on their individual characteristics rather than a broad ban of a group based on their national origin."
"It’s about risk management," she said. "To make the U.S. an open and free society is an important thing. You can ban all Chinese people. That is a way to eliminate risk, but is this kind of action worth taking? What’s the cost of doing that?"
Frank Wu, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, and the incoming president of Queens College, in New York, said the various proposals represent continua along a slippery slope.
"It starts with, 'Oh, it’s just this group,'" he said. "Then it becomes bigger."
Wu characterized the developments in relation to the "Overton window," a term used to describe the range of proposals and ideas that are considered to be within the political mainstream.
"What’s happened is the Overton window has moved way over to open discussion of excluding specific segments of a population defined by national origin," he said. "We’re one step away from it becoming politically acceptable again to talk about total exclusion."