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Chinese students face hostile climate under Trump's crackdown

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-10-08 01:28


The Trump administration's rhetoric — profiling Chinese students and scientists as "spies" — and its visa restrictions are making for an increasingly hostile environment for them to study and research in the US.

A Chinese student at Rice University in Houston recently found the word "spy" painted on her apartment door. In another incident, a sticker bearing the same word was applied to a door knocker, as seen in a photo shared on social media by Iris Li, a Chinese student at Emory University in Atlanta.

Li, a childhood friend of the victimized student, also posted the screenshots of text messages in which the student said local police hadn't responded in several hours, and she didn't know what to do next.

"I'm scared ... I'm thinking of going back to China," read one of the students' messages.

The new wave of blaming Chinese students for "espionage" or "intellectual property theft" has emerged as part of President Donald Trump's broader anti-China strategy as he seeks reelection.

Since Trump took office, his administration has been cracking down on Chinese students and scholars, such as reducing the length of visas for graduate students in the sciences and technology to one year.

On May 29, Trump issued a presidential proclamation that would cancel the visas of thousands of graduate students and researchers with links to the Chinese military.

Since the rule went into effect June 1, the US State Department has revoked more than 1,000 visas for such students as of Sept 8, a spokesperson for the department said.

It is "a tragic error" on the part of the Trump administration, said Susan Shirk, a research professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

"The ability of the United States to attract talented people from around the world to our great world-class universities is one of the key elements in American strength and competitiveness," she said at a recent webinar hosted by the Committee of 100.

"Restricting access and creating a kind of unfriendly hostile atmosphere is absolutely tragic and a huge mistake," she said. "I hope one of the first things (a new president) would do is to lift these visa restrictions."

China has been the US' largest source of international students over the past decade, according to the Institute of International Education. There are more than 300,000 Chinese students studying in the US, but the number has been on a decline in the past few years, which experts attribute to the "Trump effect".

On July 6, the administration announced that foreign students on F1 and M1 visas for academic and vocational study may not remain in the country if they take a full online-only course load for the fall semester.

Facing widespread backlash and legal challenges, the Trump administration rescinded the new rule and prohibited only international freshmen taking all online classes from entering the US.

As a result, the University of San Francisco (USF) has only 120 freshmen from China this semester, compared with 600 to 700 in 2018, according to Stanley Kwong, an adjunct professor of business at the university.

The students are all taking classes on Zoom, experiencing issues like time difference and slow networks, he said. "Over 200 of the USF students have decided to go to the UK, Australia or Norway. Many parents think the US is too dangerous," Kwong told China Daily.

"The ability to attract talents, not just from China but from all over the world, is a critical success factor (for) US competitiveness and (its) accomplishments in science and any other areas," said Yasheng Huang, a professor of international management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He said a fact that many people don't know is that doing basic science, unlike social science, is "extremely labor intensive", and the most talented scientists and students tend to come from China.

In the US, about 6,000 Chinese nationals acquired doctorates in science and engineering each year, said Huang, citing 2018 data. The second-largest country is India, with 2,000 PhD graduates in those areas.

"There's absolutely no way that you can replace the Chinese students so quickly by going to the next country on the list, which is India," said Huang.

Take MIT for example, he said: If all Chinese PhD students and postdocs are banned, MIT would "come to a screeching stop".

"That's not good for the United States" but "that's true of many major research universities".

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