The U.S. Sinophobia Tracker: How America is becoming unfriendly to Chinese students, scientists, and scholars

Tracking paranoid rhetoric, visa restrictions, and the targeted policing of China-connected research, which combine to create a hostile atmosphere for Chinese people in the U.S.

Update July 24: Five articles published in July have been added to the tracker, from SupChina, Bloomberg, LA TimesNY Times, and the New York Post

See also: The new Yellow Peril?

“Somebody was saying it was harder for Chinese students to come in.”

On June 29, U.S. President Donald Trump sounded off on a wide range of policy issues in a rare press conference in Osaka, Japan, following a meeting with Chinese President Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. One subject he brought up on his own was the difficulties that Chinese students say they are facing in America now, during an especially tense time in U.S.-China relations. 

“If somebody viewed it that way, I don’t,” the President said. “We want to have Chinese students come and use our great schools, our great universities. They’ve been great students and tremendous assets.” They will be treated “just like anybody else, just like any other nation,” Trump added. 

The reality: A year and a half under the shadow of government-directed sinophobia

“Faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”

—L. Rafael Reif, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 25, 2019

“In recent weeks, the Berkeley administration has received several reports of negative comments directed at our Chinese-American faculty, as well as at researchers engaged in collaborations with Chinese companies and institutions, implying without basis that these scholars could be acting as spies or otherwise working at odds with the interests of the United States.”

—UC Berkeley administration statement on February 21, 2019

“I never thought I was working for a particular country, but for the future of humanity. Maybe I was too caught up in my academic thinking. Maybe I should have taken more political factors into consideration.”

—Lǐ Xiǎojiāng 李晓江, neuroscientist recently dismissed from Emory University, to SupChina

As with many policy issues, on this issue President Trump does not seem to be entirely in-step with the U.S. intelligence community, or the broader American bureaucracy. 

In reality, the American immigration and justice system has appeared to target Chinese students, and ethnically Chinese researchers, with paranoid rhetoric, visa restrictions, and heightened policing and politicization of China-connected research, particularly in the past year and a half. Together, these three trends comprise the primary — but not only — components of the current atmosphere of suspicion and distrust in America of not just Beijing, but Chinese people as a whole. In other words, sinophobia. 

This article, which we are calling our “Sinophobia Tracker,” shows how those three trends have developed. We will regularly update it in the future to include further news. 

Click here to read about why SupChina launched this Sinophobia Tracker, in the words of our Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Goldkorn.

Paranoid rhetoric about Chinese people in the U.S.

The current period of sinophobia in America began on February 13, 2018, when FBI director Christopher Wray cast suspicion on every Chinese person in America as a potential spy. The key quote from his comments to a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing is:

One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.

Wray later elaborated at an April 2018 at the Council on Foreign Relations:

No country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China.

 

China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations. They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China. At the FBI we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our fifty-six field offices, and they span just about every industry or sector.

 

…Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense. And to be clear, the United States—our country is by no means their only target.

In April this year, another senior U.S. official emphasized the racial nature of some of the thinking animating conversation in the American capital. From the Washington Examiner

“This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before,” Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning at the State Department, said Monday evening at a security forum in Washington, D.C.…

 

…“The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family,” Skinner said, noting Karl Marx’s indebtedness to Western political ideas. “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

The fact that Skinner herself is black, not Caucasian, was the cause of some amusement for the wags on Twitter, but of no comfort to many Chinese people in the United States who have not forgotten the Chinese Exclusion Act, a racist piece of legislation designed to do what it says, signed into law in 1882 and only repealed in 1943, just one year after the U.S. began forcing innocent Japanese-Americans into internment camps.

On July 16, 2019, Donald Trump repeated, without evidence, an inflammatory insinuation from billionaire investor Peter Thiel about Google committing “treason” by “working with the Chinese government.”

On July 20, 2019, the New York Times reported that “A new Red Scare is reshaping Washington,” citing the increasing influence of the racist and xenophobic views of people like Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, and organizations like the Committee on the Present Danger, a Cold War relic whose revival Bannon has spearheaded.

On July 23, 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray slightly rephrased his earlier remarks, and said of the Chinese espionage threat, “It’s kind of an all-tools approach by them, and it, therefore, requires an all-tools approach by us.”

A year of visa restrictions and delays

Part of the solution that the American government pursued for the “whole-of-society threat” from Chinese people took the form of visa restrictions for Chinese graduate students and researchers. 

Within the White House, in the spring of 2018, immigration advisor Stephen Miller pushed for a complete ban on Chinese students — all 350,000+ of them — in the U.S., the Financial Times reported. Trade advisor Peter Navarro, known for his “Death by China” book and documentary, was also reported to have pushed for a hard stance.

The American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, reportedly convinced Trump to take a less dramatic line. Visa restrictions began in June 2018 for Chinese graduate students in fields like robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing. 

“Don’t close the door on Chinese scientists like me,” particle physicist Yangyang Cheng wrote after the first round of visa restrictions was reported:

China is the largest source country of international students and visiting scholars to U.S. universities. Visa restrictions and additional security hurdles on Chinese scientists would cause serious harm to the collaborative nature of scientific research and would be a colossal waste of government resources that could be devoted to investigating actual cases of unlawful behavior with proper due process…

 

Without being implemented, the suggestion alone of such discriminatory policies casts doubt on every Chinese citizen as a potential agent of the Chinese state, guilty until proved innocent, and inadvertently gives credence to the Chinese government’s own claim that it holds not only control over a territory but also ownership of a people, including its diaspora.

 

Instead of having racist paranoia turn the Chinese government’s nativist assertions into a self-fulfilling prophecy, the United States must prove the fallacy of such authoritarian delusion by welcoming Chinese immigrants and protecting them from undue pressure by their home government. Chinese scientists in the United States should not be seen as a cash cow for universities, exploited for cheap labor, or suspected as foreign spies. Instead, we deserve dignity, freedom, and equality — the fundamental rights that the Chinese government is too fearful to grant its people.

In more recent months, hundreds of Chinese students have reportedly faced unexplained and highly unusual delays on their student visas. Delays for various kinds of work visas that Chinese people in the U.S. rely on have also reportedly increased. 

On June 3, 2019, a Chinese Ministry of Education notice said that Chinese students in the U.S. are facing restrictions and difficulties with visas that are affecting their ability to complete their studies, and warned both students and scholars to be aware of increased risk when going to the U.S. This raised alarm that the U.S. and China may “weaponize talent,” and universities around the country reportedly braced for declining Chinese student enrollments

On July 22, 2019, the LA Times reported that “UC campuses from San Diego to Berkeley are reporting that Chinese students and scholars are encountering visa delays, federal scrutiny over their research activities, and new restrictions on collaboration with China and Chinese companies.”

Heightened policing and politicization of China-connected research

The most recently revealed side of the U.S. government response to what it sees as the “whole-of-society threat” from China is a newfound level of scrutiny of China-connected research. 

In May, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, sacked two neuroscientists, Lǐ Xiǎojiāng 李晓江, and his wife, Lǐ Shìhuá 李世华, after they were accused of failing to “fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of his work for research institutions and universities in China.” Li’s lab was dismissed and four researchers working for him, who are Chinese nationals, were ordered to leave the U.S. within 30 days after the lab’s closure. The university’s investigation started back in November 2018 and was prompted by orders from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a U.S. government-affiliated agency responsible for biomedical and public health research. Li and two of the scientists who had worked for him later told their stories to SupChina

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on June 13 that Wú Xīfèng 吴息凤, a naturalized American citizen and “the top-ranked epidemiologist at the nation’s top-ranked cancer center,” MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, was forced out of her research position. The article says that “Wu hasn’t been charged with stealing anyone’s ideas, but in effect she stood accused of secretly aiding and abetting cancer research in China, an un-American activity in today’s political climate.” Three other top Chinese American scientists at MD Anderson have also departed in recent months. The cover of the magazine dubbed this event part of a “new Red Scare.”

A June 25 article in University World News describes how the addition of dozens of Chinese universities to “entity lists” at the U.S. Commerce Department and other government arms in Washington has threatened to stifle cross-border research collaborations. 

A Science Magazine report on June 26 detailed the growing scrutiny of foreign (read Chinese) scientists in the U.S.:

An aggressive effort by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enforce rules requiring its grantees to report foreign ties is still gathering steam. But it has already had a major impact on the U.S. biomedical research community. A senior NIH official tells ScienceInsider that universities have fired more scientists — and refunded more grant money — as a result of the effort than has been publicly known.

 

Since August 2018, Bethesda, Maryland–based NIH has sent roughly 180 letters to more than 60 U.S. institutions about individual scientists it believes have broken NIH rules requiring full disclosure of all sources of research funding. To date, the investigation has led to the well-publicized dismissals of five researchers, all Asian Americans, at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Emory University in Atlanta.

 

But other major U.S. research universities have also fired faculty in cases that have remained confidential, according to Michael Lauer, head of NIH’s extramural research program. And some have repaid NIH “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in grants as a result of rule violations, he says. 

On June 28, NPR reported that the FBI is “encouraging American research universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions, as U.S. suspicion toward China spreads to academia.”

On July 18, Bloomberg reported that the “U.S. targeting of Chinese scientists fuels a brain drain,” and cited the case of a nanotechnology startup at College of William & Mary that left for China “after federal agents hounded its founder, [Xin Zhao], for two years.” One lawyer told Bloomberg that “Chinese scientists and engineers are often detained and searched at U.S. airports these days while traveling to and from China, as family members watch in panic.”

More news reports will be added to this Tracker as they are published.