Why Is the U.S. Revoking So Many Chinese Student Visas?

Editor’s Note: Lavender Au is China Note’s new lead writer, curating the week’s top news

Editor’s Note: Lavender Au is China Note’s new lead writer, curating the week’s top news and expert analysis on China every Wednesday with WPR Newsletter and Engagement Editor Benjamin Wilhelm.

More than 1,000 Chinese students and scholars have had their visas to the United States revoked recently under a new Trump administration program that claims to target security risks and guard against espionage. The affected students largely hail from China’s seven major national defense colleges, which are directly subordinate to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, receive funding from the military and work on military projects. But to call these universities a direct pipeline to the Chinese military is an overstatement.

Nevertheless, the acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said his department was revoking the visas “for certain Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to China’s military fusion strategy to prevent them from stealing and otherwise appropriating sensitive research.” In response, China’s Foreign Ministry called the restrictions “outright political persecution and racial discrimination” that harmed the “legitimate rights and interests of Chinese students studying in the U.S.”

Wolf formed a China Working Group in July with an eye to “curbing China’s malign activity” and to address what it called “intensifying threats” in “the trade, cybersecurity, immigration and intellectual property domains.” A State Department spokeswoman said the visas were revoked for “high-risk graduate students and research scholars” who were only a “small subset of the total number of Chinese students and scholars.” One-third of all international students in the U.S. come from China, totaling nearly 370,000 last year. Revoking visas for these students punishes them for choices they haven’t yet made, since graduating from a university with military ties is not the same as being a member of that military or having access to sensitive research.

Chinese graduate students whose visas were revoked have started discussion threads on the forum 1point3acres, with one thread already focused on a concerted effort to sue the U.S. government.

To the average Chinese student, these universities are simply among the best for science, technology, engineering and math in China, and enrolling in them is not equivalent to joining the People’s Liberation Army. At one of the universities, the National University of Defense Technology in Hunan province, most students do give up their civilian ID cards and are issued military IDs. But students there have long reported difficulties in applying to study in the U.S. anyway, and tend to head to the United Kingdom instead.

Recent decisions by the Trump administration seem to be taken with little thought for how they affect international students. Currently, because of Immigration and Customs Enforcement rules put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, only new foreign students attending colleges and universities that are holding in-person classes can enter the U.S., though those already in the country taking classes remotely can remain. The number of international students able to obtain Optional Practical Training visas, which allow international students graduating from U.S. universities with STEM degrees to work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation, will also drop this year. This has serious implications for international students hoping to work in the U.S. and also employers who count on hiring international talent. These students must now rethink their graduate career trajectories and prepare to possibly uproot their lives with little notice.

While the U.S. is becoming a more hostile environment for Chinese students, China has long wanted to attract research talent back home. For students who have already spent years in undergraduate and graduate study in the U.S., going back to China is unpalatable, as it means starting anew, without solid academic and professional networks, and usually for jobs at lower salaries.

They also must confront the Chinese government’s instrumentalist view that students should return and serve their country, blurring the lines between state and society. In a speech to a forum in Beijing last week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on Chinese scientists to “shoulder your historical duty and integrate your own scientific pursuit into the great cause of building a modern socialist country.” While the U.S. increases scrutiny of Chinese students, China has rolled out a “Strong Base Plan,” which aims to ramp up the number of students who pursue basic research subjects. Reducing state and Communist Party interference in academia and business in China, and not putting pressure on Chinese students studying abroad, might alleviate concerns in the U.S. and elsewhere about espionage, but that is not the way the political tide is going in Beijing.

But by making it more difficult for Chinese students to stay in the U.S., and imposing more visa restrictions if they do, the Trump administration may make those calls to return to China more attractive. It may also boost joint-venture universities where Chinese students can earn foreign degrees without leaving China, among them New York University’s campus in Shanghai and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s campus in Shenzhen. Countries like the U.K. may benefit, too, according to a recent survey carried out by a Chinese education consultancy, as Chinese students, after all, have more educational choices than the U.S. and China.

Chinese students face a dilemma between their own government’s statist view of science and academia, and an American government willing to deal out collateral damage in the name of rooting out spies. If the U.S. wants to limit espionage in a meaningful way, it should be wary of casting the net too wide.

Lavender Au

Top Reads on China

Huawei’s “digital decapitation”: Recent American regulations that severely restrict Huawei’s access to semiconductor chips are kneecapping the Chinese telecom giant’s plans to become the world’s dominant provider of 5G technology. Huawei’s “digital decapitation,” as economic historian Chris Miller calls it in The New York Times, illustrates America’s immense economic power and China’s reliance on “foreign—especially American—technology.” But America’s technological advantage is shrinking, and its “weaponization of supply chains gives allies and adversaries alike a powerful reason to reduce their reliance on American products,” Miller writes:

“Washington has shown that it knows how to wield its technological power. But it is one thing to use power and another to accumulate it. The campaign against Huawei works only because other countries rely on American technology. Now they have an incentive to diversify. And the American position is no longer as unassailable as it once was. If the United States’ technological edge keeps slipping, the strangulation of Huawei could mark the peak of American power over the world’s tech companies.”

A display from Chinese technology firm Huawei at the PT Expo in Beijing, Sept. 26, 2018 (AP photo by Mark Schiefelbein).

U.S.-China decoupling would make it impossible to save the environment: The debate about whether the U.S. should “decouple” from China by severing supply chains, trade relationships and financial links “mostly centers on whether the security benefits of decoupling would offset its economic costs,” political scientist Jeff D. Colgan writes for Foreign Affairs. But a “major factor in determining the best course of action—a factor that tips the balance against decoupling and in favor of continuing to foster engagement between Washington and Beijing,” is climate change, Colgan argues:

“Without taking into account the risks posed by catastrophic, irreversible environmental damage, it might be possible to conclude that, on balance, decoupling from China would be in the best interests of the United States. But the most promising way to tackle climate change—the formation of a ‘climate club’ of major economies that would use tariffs and other border adjustments to protect countries that meet emission targets and punish ones that do not—will require Washington to retain a degree of leverage over Beijing that can come only from continued engagement.”

In the News This Week

U.S.-China relations: The Trump administration banned imports from five Chinese entities, saying they are made by forced laborers in China’s Xinjiang region (Washington Post). … In a ruling Tuesday, the World Trade Organization sided with a Chinese complaint from 2018 that some U.S. tariffs broke international trading rules. However, the decision will likely have “no consequence for American tariff policy because the organization’s appellate system currently doesn’t function,” according to The Wall Street Journal. … The American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, unexpectedly announced Monday that he would step down in October (New York Times).

The TikTok deal: American computer software company Oracle beat out Microsoft’s bid for a stake in the U.S. operations of video-sharing app TikTok. However, the deal is not an outright sale of TikTok, and Oracle is set to become TikTok’s “trusted tech partner” in the U.S. According to the Financial Times, “Oracle will independently process TikTok’s U.S. data and possibly data from across the globe,” while the app “will be managed at arms-length from ByteDance,” TikTok’s Chinese owner, which will also be the majority shareholder of the new entity. The proposed deal is currently under review by the Trump administration.

Cross-Strait relations: China held large-scale military exercises near Taiwan last week, which Taipei called a serious provocation and a threat to international air traffic. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the drills took place in its air defense identification zone (Reuters). … The U.S. “plans to sell as many as seven major weapons systems, including mines, cruise missiles and drones to Taiwan,” Reuters reported, “a rare departure from years of precedent in which U.S. military sales to the island were spaced out and carefully calibrated to minimize tensions with Beijing.”

China-India border tensions: China and India pledged again on Friday to defuse tensions along their disputed Himalayan border, just days after another escalation. Both countries had promised to ease border tensions after a deadly skirmish in June, but have failed to end the monthslong confrontation (New York Times).

China-Europe relations: China banned pork imports from Germany on Saturday, two days before trade and investment talks between Xi and European Union leaders, citing concerns over the spread of African swine fever. Analysts said the ban had more to do with political considerations than preventing a disease outbreak (Financial Times). … Xi and EU leaders held a “constructive and intense” virtual meeting Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, amid ongoing friction over market access and human rights (The Diplomat).

Military and defense: China’s third aircraft carrier, and its first to be equipped with modern technology, has entered the “latter phases of construction,” according to The Washington Post, and “could be launched into the water in the coming months.” … Since 2017, a small Chinese company called Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology has systematically collected bits of social media and online data “on more than 2 million people, including at least 50,000 Americans and tens of thousands of people who hold prominent public positions” for the “stated purpose of providing intelligence to the Chinese military,” The Washington Post reported. An Australian cybersecurity company got hold of a copy of the database, which was left unsecured on the internet.

Foreign policy: An Indonesian patrol ship confronted a Chinese coast guard vessel that spent almost three days in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (Associated Press). … Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar protested the visit of Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi on Tuesday, in response to a new policy in China’s Inner Mongolia region that requires some classes in primary and secondary schools to be taught in Mandarin, rather than Mongolian (Reuters). We covered the backlash to the “bilingual education” program in Inner Mongolia last week.

Hong Kong: The families of a dozen Hong Kong activists who were arrested at sea last month have spoken out, pleading with China to allow the detainees access to lawyers (New York Times).

COVID-19 pandemic: The United Arab Emirates recently became the “first country outside China to approve emergency usage of a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine candidate,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Benjamin Wilhelm

Lavender Au is a journalist who has reported from China for The New York Review of Books, The Times Magazine, Wired UK and Technode. Previously, she worked as an analyst at China Policy, a Beijing-based policy advisory firm, focusing on internal governance. You can follow her on Twitter @lavender_au.

Benjamin Wilhelm is WPR’s newsletter and engagement editor.