It is thought around 3,000 current Chinese students and researchers in the US could be expelled from the country or denied reentry and visa renewals as a result. Undergraduates will not be affected.
The move is an attempt to limit the use by the Chinese government of “non-traditional collectors of intellectual property” in the US, which has become a growing concern as tensions with China escalate.
Last month two Republican congressmen and a senator introduced a bill that would prevent graduate and post-graduate Chinese students from pursuing education in STEM subjects in the US.
“Our actions last Friday are a direct consequence of PRC government strategies and policies”
“Our actions last Friday are a direct consequence of PRC government strategies and policies that exploit the access of some of China’s brightest graduate students and researchers, in targeted fields, to divert and steal sensitive technologies and intellectual property from US institutions, taking undue advantage of our open and collaborative academic and research environment,” said secretary of state Mike Pompeo in a press briefing.
“We expect this new visa policy will contribute to an improved, open, and transparent environment in which US and Chinese scholars can engage with greater trust.”
China and the US have been engaged in an escalating series of tit-for-tat measures against each other for the past two years, including trade tariffs and public criticism of each other’s treatment of minorities.
The rights of Chinese and US aircraft to land in the other’s country have also been put at risk, although concessions from Beijing easing restrictions around foreign aircraft may mean that the US government won’t ban Chinese airlines come June 16.
Esther D Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA, said that the association was concerned about the impact of the measures on international education and vital research cooperation. Around 370,000 Chinese students studied in the US in 2018/19, although only a small proportion will be impacted by these measures.
“In a global competition for talent, policies like this send the wrong message at a time when it is vital for us to attract the best and the brightest to our universities and communities,” she said.
“To keep the US growing economically and educationally, it’s important that our government enact thoughtful policies that help America thrive. We will continue to make the case that openness and a welcoming posture further enhances our institutions and the US.”
Rebecca Bernhard, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, believes this change may also lead to more delays in visa processing at US consulates in China when they reopen, noting that “the burden will likely be on the students and scholars to document that their research program is not subject to the bar”.
“The burden will likely be on the students and scholars to document that their research program is not subject to the bar”
“The actual suspension likely will impact a narrow number of graduate students and scholars,” she explained.
“However, because of the scrutiny to determine which students will be suspended from entry, all students and scholars will face a lot of questions… It appears the presumption is that the bar applies and the student or scholar will need to document that it does not.”
While stakeholders admit that espionage and Chinese government influence on campuses are valid concerns – two Chinese citizens with links to the military and a Harvard professor in Boston were charged in separate cases earlier this year – how this impacts US institutions depends on what constitutes a link to the PLA.
The presidential proclamation on the issue defines it anyone “who either receives funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC that implements or supports the PRC’s ‘military-civil fusion strategy'”.
Many universities in China, particularly those with specialisations in cybertechnology and communications, have military links because the “military-civil fusion strategy” ostensibly aims to encourage research into technology which benefits the military while also having civil commercial applications. This includes fields like the aerospace industry and artificial intelligence.
This blurring of the line between military and civil research will likely make it difficult to decide upon the motivations of future visa applicants.
In addition, multiple universities in China are also overseen by defence agencies instead of the Ministry of Education and a larger number house laboratories focused on national defence-related research.
There is currently no list of which Chinese institutions the US will include in the restrictions but it has the potential to be well over 100.
“This action is stark political persecution and racial discrimination and a grave violation of the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese students and researchers in the US,” said Chinese government spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Monday.
“We urge the US to immediately stop using all sorts of excuses to wantonly restrict and oppress Chinese students and researchers in the US. It should immediately retract its wrong decision, and respect and protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese students in the US.”