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US: legislation proposed to ban visas for Chinese STEM graduate students

Two influential senators and one congressman in the US have unveiled a bill aimed at stopping Chinese students receiving US visas to study STEM subjects at graduate and post-graduate level, citing fears over “economic espionage” on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

ChinaFears about Chinese espionage at US universities has prompted calls for greater restrictions on visas for Chinese students. Photo: Flickr

There are additionally plans to cancel the visas of over 3,000 Chinese graduate students

“This kind ofact…would represent a crushing blow to what US colleges are trying to salvage from China”

Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn, and congressman David Kustoff plan to put the SECURE CAMPUS Act forward as a response to perceptions that Chinese students are spying for their government.

“Beijing exploits student and research visas to steal science, technology, engineering and manufacturing secrets from US academic and research institutions,” said Blackburn.

“We’ve fed China’s innovation drought with American ingenuity and taxpayer dollars for too long; it’s time to secure the US research enterprise against the CCP’s economic espionage.”

US security officials have previously called US universities a “soft target” for Chinese espionage activities and high profile cases this year have involved students and staff at top institutions such as Harvard.

In February, The FBI said it had more than 1,000 open cases on Chinese economic espionage and technology theft across the country.

While the bill has yet to be picked up in Chinese media so the impact on student views on the US as a study destination may be limited, it represents yet another issue in the deteriorating relationship between China and the US.

“This kind of act is not likely to pass but would represent a crushing blow to what US colleges are trying to salvage from China these days. It represents red meat for the president’s base in advance of the election,” said Marty Bennett of SMIE Consulting.

“As to how it will be perceived, there are plenty of other rash comments made the last four years that are far worse as they relate to China.

“The most we can hope for is it gets lost in the white noise because on its face it’s incredibly discriminatory and paints all STEM-focused Chinese students and scholars with the same ‘spy’ brush.”

In addition to the visa restrictions, the act would place restrictions on research funding for those involved in Chinese foreign talent recruitment programs and require such programs to register under FARA (the Foreign Agents Registration Act), while also expanding the definition of economic espionage “to more accurately reflect the range of institutions that the CCP uses to steal technology”.

Australia brought in a registration system two years ago in response to threats of foreign interference but didn’t limit access to visas.

The bill would, however, exempt “members of religious or ethnic groups systematically oppressed by the CCP” and give the president the power to waive the restrictions on a case-by-case basis. Applicants from Hong Kong and Taiwan would be unaffected.

According to the New York Times, the government also plans to cancel the visas of over 3,000 Chinese graduate students with links the People’s Liberation Army and affiliated universities.

A joint letter from members of both the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America, as well as other student associations called for the closure of Confucius Institutes on US campuses earlier this month, which was not mentioned in the bill.

It criticised the institutes saying that they “promote self-censorship, arbitrarily censor discussion of issues ‘sensitive’ to the Chinese Communist Party, utilise discriminatory hiring practices, and propagate blatant disinformation”.

“It’s time to secure the US research enterprise against the CCP’s economic espionage”

It further accused the Chinese government of having too much control over Chinese students in the US through associations such as the CSSA and embassies.

Senator Cotton has previously been vocal about the motivations of Chinese students in the US. Last month, he was reported saying that they shouldn’t be studying quantum computing and AI in the country but “Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers—that’s what they need to learn from America”.

Cotton was also one of four influential senators who penned a letter to president Donald Trump earlier this month, urging him to suspend issuing guest worker visas – including students on OPT – for at least 60 days.

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