Of all the American administration’s measures to crack down on China, its restrictions on Chinese students, visiting scholars and China-U.S. technology exchanges have sparked the most widespread and longest-running controversy in the United States.
Since the normalization of U.S.-China relations, the exchange of high-tech talent has the most solidly developed area between the two sides. Millions of Chinese students went to the U.S. for studies and have been one of the most important sources of talent for U.S. research institutions. They support millions of related jobs in the U.S.
In recent years, as China’s research environment has improved and its efforts to attract talent have intensified, a “brain circulation” pattern has gradually developed between the U.S. and China. High-level brainpower from both sides of the Pacific travels to advance the level of science and technology in both countries.
The talented people returning to China drive the development of research in their fields and produce yet more talent. Many younger people will go to the U.S. for further studies or stay in the U.S. and become human capital for U.S. research institutions. Research cooperation has led to extensive people-to-people exchanges and capital cooperation. A large number of new economic enterprises founded by people returning to China have been listed on both the Chinese and U.S. capital markets, bringing significant benefits to investors on both sides.
However, the Trump administration seems blind to these benefits. Since 2018, the U.S. government has taken a series of steps to disrupt the flow of talent between China and the U.S. These measures include discriminatory investigations against Chinese students and visiting scholars; restrictions on collaboration by U.S. research institutions and researchers from China; restricted access to U.S. visas for Chinese students pursuing certain majors; cancellation of some Chinese student visas on the pretext that they participated in “military-civilian integration projects”; shortening the effective period for Chinese students’ visas; and continued speculation about so-called Chinese academic espionage.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. government has ignored the real difficulties faced by the majority of international students. Instead, it has attempted to make it more difficult for international students to remain in the U.S. by restricting visa extensions and disqualifying visa extensions for students participating in online courses, violating their rights.
On Sept. 24, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a proposed rule establishing a fixed period of permitted stay for international students, exchange visitors and foreign media representatives, as well as a stiff process for applying for visa extensions. This is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to force out foreign students, including those from China.
It has cited national security considerations as the main reason for blocking the circulation and cross-pollination of Chinese and American brains. Some Trump administration officials claim that Chinese students have brought advanced American technology back to China and helped develop technology for the Chinese military. But the U.S. has not produced concrete evidence to support this claim. In fact, its approach is a unique protectionist measure, with political and partisan factors driving the practice.
The real goal of the Trump administration is to make U.S. colleges and research resources available only to Americans, reversing the trend toward diversity and skilled migration in higher education. It believes that diversity in American institutions promotes a progressive vision that will fundamentally change the balance of progressive and conservative forces in the U.S.
The administration's approach comes at a steep price for U.S. innovation. In today’s world, major breakthroughs in scientific and technological innovation often require the cooperation of talent from many countries. A large number of high-quality Chinese students and visiting scholars are an important source of innovation for the United States. The differences in knowledge structure, academic expertise, skills, cultural background and cognitive perspectives between Chinese and U.S. students and professors can enrich the diversity of U.S. innovation teams, promote the mutual collision of knowledge and complementary skills among team members and help strengthen the team’s innovative strength. U.S. restrictions on Chinese students and visiting scholars will weaken U.S. access to such intellectual support.
For this reason, criticism of the government’s approach has continued in the United States. The president of Harvard University called the government “cruel and reckless.” In response to a ban on online visas for international students, more than 200 universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Many professors offered to teach international students on a one-to-one basis, forcing the U.S. government to finally lift the ban.
Some experts argue that these practices threaten the willingness of international students graduating in the United States to continue to create jobs, grow businesses, and drive innovation domestically, and put at risk the enduring U.S. advantage in science and innovation that attracts the best talent from around the world.
The Trump administration’s approach of disrupting brain circulation between China and the United States is likely to hurt the innovation capacity of the U.S. for a long time before it becomes apparent. Unlike fixed assets, human resources are highly mobile, and it’s relatively easy for talented people to break through geographical or political barriers.
The U.S. government’s protectionist measures go against the trends of history, are unlikely to have the desired effect and provide opportunities for other countries to compete with the United States for international talent. When the U.S. ceases to be a desirable place for global talent, U.S. technological hegemony will also begin to slip.