Until recently Wang Da was a PhD student at the University of Texas at Dallas. But he hasn’t been able to get a visa to return to the US since a trip back to China earlier this year.
Wang is one of about a hundred graduate students currently in limbo as the US authorities apply a new screening process to visa applications from Chinese post-grads. The State Department had already reduced the length of visas for Chinese studying in areas like robotics and advanced manufacturing. But now it seems that students in related fields are being subject to extra scrutiny too.
Wang, a computer scientist, is worried he will never get the chance to return to Texas and finish his studies. “If I can’t go back, all my efforts, all my research will be wasted,” he told Sohu.com.
Over 350,000 Chinese students enrol in US universities every year contributing about $12 billion to the American economy, according to the State Department. But government agencies are getting more vocal about the security risk that some of these students might pose. In February of last year FBI Director Christopher Wray said that China was using “non-traditional [intelligence] collectors” to exploit the “very open research and development environment we have here”. And last week officials from the US Department of Justice warned that Chinese intelligence services had sent “thousands” of people to American colleges to steal intellectual property.
“The message to all the schools is: be aware that you are a target,” said John Demers, leader of the ‘China Initiative’, a programme at the DoJ to combat the theft of trade secrets.
The US attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, who also works with the China Initiative, told reporters that his state had become a “node” for such activities because it is home to leading research facilities at places like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as well as many defence and technology companies.
The Boston Herald said Lelling also cited the example of Qin Shuren, a Chinese national living in the area, who was arrested on charges of illegally exporting American-made components used in anti-submarine warfare.
Although neither instance involves Chinese on academic visas, prosecutors are also citing the strange case of Zhang Yujing – a woman who talked herself into Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club – as another matter of national security. She was found to be carrying a thumb drive containing malware and a search of her hotel room also revealed multiple SIM cards, $8,000 in cash and a “signal detector” used to find radio waves, magnetic fields and hidden cameras.
All of this comes against the backdrop of the ongoing trade war with the US, and in China the visa problem has been depicted as less about espionage and more as a way for the Americans to make life difficult for Chinese citizens as yet another source of leverage in the trade talks.
Even students applying for short-term academic visas for language camps are being turned down in larger numbers, complained College Daily, a WeChat-based publication for university students.
Others have taken a sterner line, comparing the mood to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, when Washington was consumed by fears that public life was riddled with people sympathetic to Communism.
It was during this period that preeminent aerodynamicist Qian Xuesen was put under house arrest, despite protests from his American colleagues, who valued his expertise.
After five years in detention Qian returned to China in a swap for American pilots captured during the Korean War – a move that was instrumental in helping the Chinese military develop its first homegrown ballistic missile and later the Chang’e spacecraft.
“The last time the government used this tactic, the US lost a top scientist,” the Beijing Evening News warned, remembering Qian’s case.
“It was the stupidest thing this country ever did,” former Navy Secretary Dan Kimball was said to have admitted of Qian’s treatment some time after the event. “He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go.”
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