Chinese graduates of Columbia University (Picture Credit: Xinhua)
On February 11th, a civil liberties coalition consisting of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Electronic Frontier Foundation among other organizations, penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo raising concerns about the potential surveillance of Chinese students intending to study in the United States. In November 2018, Reuters reported that the Trump administration is considering new background checks and additional vetting of Chinese students due to growing espionage concerns. This could include checks of phone records and personal social media accounts for any signals about students’ intentions in the United States, such as affiliations with Chinese governmental organizations.
These considerations are part of a broader effort to take a tougher stand against what Vice President Mike Pence deems Beijing’s “whole-of-government approach...to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” In the last year, the U.S. has implemented precautionary measures to curb what it views as the heightened risk of spying and intellectual property theft. For instance, in June 2018, the U.S. Department of State shortened the length of visas to one year from five for Chinese graduate students in areas important to national security, such as aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing. China has also identified these areas as ones where it aims to acquire rapid technological advances under the “Made in China 2025” program. In October, senior White House aide Stephen Miller even tried to push for a full ban of visas to Chinese students.
Behind these considerations is a growing wariness of China’s tactics on the world stage. Recently, current and former U.S. intelligence officials warned that China is using nontraditional forms of espionage with increasing frequency to advance its own interests. Accordingly, the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, which details the U.S. intelligence community’s high-level assessments of threats to U.S. national security, states that “China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means.” Concerns are not coming from those in the U.S. government alone. An extensive report released last November by the Hoover Institution highlight China’s use of “coercive or corrupting methods” to interfere in American civil and political life.
While the U.S. intelligence community, and American politicians, academics, and national security experts alike have raised alarm at what China’s growing influence operations could mean for the future of the liberal international system, it is also important to keep a clear-eyed view of where the threat is coming from. Chinese state-sponsored newspapers have construed U.S. suspicions of China as part of the return of McCarthyism with headlines like “McCarthyism making a comeback in the US” and “US hacking accusation against China reflects ‘rising McCarthyism’.” Although these headlines may be extreme, drawing from history may teach a fruitful lesson. The rapid development of Cold War tensions after World War II fueled the Second Red Scare in the United States, which accompanied McCarthyism––a vociferous campaign, spearheaded by anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, against alleged communists at all levels of the U.S. government and across multiple sectors of society. Those accused of communist leanings were denied basic constitutional rights like due process; their reputations and livelihoods were crushed in the name of national security.
McCarthyism came in various strands. For the Chinese in America, it was the unwarranted suspicion imposed on them for their ethnic heritage. During the early postwar period, Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans alike enjoyed an unprecedented level of acceptance by Americans in light of the shared U.S.-China experience of fighting together to defeat the common enemy, Japan. Not long after the war, however, the Chinese in America faced renewed hostility and scrutiny from Americans as the international landscape changed with the start of the Cold War. With the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Korean War that soon followed, the U.S. and PRC were put on opposing sides. China’s direct conflict with America and its allies further compounded the negative image of the Chinese, and anti-communists raised concerns that the Chinese in America could become a fifth column for Communist China.
Soon after the PRC’s founding, the United States began surveillance of left-wing organizations, with the FBI bugging the headquarters of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, a labor organization formed in 1933 to protect the civil rights of overseas Chinese living in North America. Chinese and Chinese-Americans’ mail, phone lines, and movements were monitored. U.S. authorities even probed into the lives of U.S. World War II veterans of Chinese heritage and interrogated children in Chinatown playgrounds. According to Amy Chen, director of the documentary film, “The Chinatown Files,” records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show the U.S. government briefly considered interning Chinese-Americans in the same way Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were sent to camps during World War II.
At the height of McCarthy’s accusations against alleged communists in Washington in the early 1950s, a number of Chinese and Chinese-American scientists were investigated and deported to China. One of the most notable cases was that of Qian Xuesen, the “father of Chinese rocketry.” A prominent Chinese aerodynamicist at MIT and Caltech, co-founder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and member of the U.S. government’s Science Advisory Board during World War II, Qian helped pioneer the U.S. space program. In 1950, based on allegations that Qian had briefly been a member of the Communist Party in 1938, he was put under house arrest for five years from 1950 to 1955, lost his security clearance, and his application for U.S. citizenship was denied. Disillusioned by his treatment, he helped lead the development of China’s nuclear weapons program after returning to China, an effort which ultimately led to China’s successful “Two Bombs, One Satellite Campaign.”
The United States’ restrictive policies towards Chinese students––both those currently in place and those being considered––may not be accurately characterized as McCarthyism just yet. To call them such is to undermine the extent of the political repression, stifling of free debate, the denial of basic constitutional rights, and the complete abandonment of the truth during that time. Nonetheless, as Representative Judy Chu, Democrat of California, put it, the current visa restrictions do amount to targeting “an entire ethnic group of people for suspicion that they’re spies for China.” Continuing to single out Chinese students and doubling down on such measures may result in a national security overreach propelled by the very fear and bigotry that powered the McCarthy era.
In considering policies aimed at restricting Chinese influence operations, the United States must remember that America’s openness is its strength. As Chinese students in the U.S. are exposed to American values, principles, and ideas over the decades, many have strengthened the forces within China that push for freedom of speech, human rights, and representative government. They have reinforced the notion of America as a country where one can study freely, share ideas, and express opinions. These fraught times in U.S.-China relations call for a measured, cautious, and prudent approach and a recognition of the value of all Chinese people in America, both Chinese-Americans and Chinese students studying abroad in the U.S., as drivers of good people-to-people relations.
As anti-Chinese sentiments and suspicions increase in the U.S. and globally, the United States must hold onto its liberal democratic principles rather than falling prey to the vices of McCarthyism. The U.S. must strike a balance between protecting America’s open academic environment and mitigating national security risks. Failure to act cautiously towards reports of Chinese influence operations may cause the U.S. to be the victim of its own policies rather than of China’s efforts.