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US Ban on Chinese Students With Military Links Divides Experts on Impact

FILE - Chinese graduate students who study STEM fields often stay and work in the United States after graduation.
FILE - Chinese graduate students who study STEM fields often stay and work in the United States after graduation.

A new U.S. ban on Chinese graduate students with military ties went into effect this week, and universities are still grappling over its expected impact on American universities and several thousand Chinese students.

President Donald Trump signed a proclamation on May 29, barring Chinese graduate students and researchers who have ties with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from entering the United States, part of a new U.S. effort to stop China from using graduate students to steal intellectual property and technology from America.

People who oppose the new ban said the policy would undercut the ability of American universities to conduct cutting-edge research, since graduate research assistants are disproportionately international students, many from China. The measure also could hurt American universities’ finances as well as U.S. competitiveness in scientific innovation.

'Seven Sons of National Defense'

The executive order gives the U.S. secretary of state discretion to determine which students are banned under the new measure, but the order does not specify which students are affected.

Citing anonymous U.S. officials, news media reports said the ban targets seven military-affiliated universities in China, including Northwestern Polytechnical University, Harbin Engineering University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Beihang University (formerly known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics), University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing Institute of Technology, Nanjing University of Science and Technology and Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

All seven are directed by China’s Ministry of Industry and information Technology and are referred to as the “Seven Sons of National Defense.”

“The new policy will impact about 3,000 to 4,000 Chinese international students,” said Robert Daly, the Director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

That’s a small fraction of an estimated 350,000 or more Chinese students studying at American universities, but the ban could lead to fewer overall enrollments from Chinese students.

FILE - Ailu Xu, a graduate student from China, posts a sign directing Chinese students to new student orientation at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas, Aug. 22, 2015.
FILE - Ailu Xu, a graduate student from China, posts a sign directing Chinese students to new student orientation at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas, Aug. 22, 2015.

Supporters of Trump’s new immigration policy told VOA Mandarin that the administration’s decision to limit students from military-affiliated universities is carefully considered and measured. They said China now threatens to use its military to coerce and settle differences by force, which undermines global security and stability.

“No country should be helping the Chinese military increase its capabilities while it threatens its neighbors,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official who helped manage bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

He added that until China renounces the use of force against Taiwan and countries that it has territorial disputes with, countries in Europe and Asia should also limit technology transfer to Chinese military organizations, including its universities.

Yet other experts argue that international students, especially Chinese students, play a key role in science research in America universities.

Elizabeth Bowditch used to teach cultural awareness at Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. She said that in limiting visas to Chinese graduate students, the administration is undercutting the ability of American universities to conduct cutting-edge research.

“Graduate research assistants are disproportionately international students, many of whom are from China,” she said, “The upshot is that the U.S. will no longer be able to benefit from the contributions Chinese students make at American universities and that will be a huge loss to scientific and innovation and research.”

Yet Thompson argued that the policy would not negatively impact U.S. universities, since “the total number of affected students is very small compared to the overall numbers of Chinese students still eligible to study in the United States.”

A top Chinese scientist shared his opinion with VOA Mandarin on the condition of anonymity. He said that he has benefited from academic exchanges with U.S. colleagues. “America and the world also benefited greatly from free academic exchange among scientists,” he said. “Don’t forget that scientists [who] immigrated from Britain, Germany and then Soviet Union after WWII also contributed greatly to America’s leading position in technology today.”

Secure Campus Act

While the current ban appears limited in scope because it targets only graduate students with direct ties to specific schools, American lawmakers are considering much broader bans.

Two days before Trump announced the proclamation, Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn, from Arkansas and Tennessee respectively, introduced the Secure Campus Act, which would ban visas to all Chinese nationals seeking STEM studies in the United States.

The Wilson Center’s Daly said the proposed bill is too biased and harmful to the United Sates.

“We must distinguish which suspicions are based on reasoning,” he told VOA Mandarin. “We can’t just say they are all spies. The senators provided the bill, but they didn’t provide the evidence.”

Berlin Fang is the director of instructional design at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He told VOA Mandarin that from the American perspective, the proposed bill, if passed, would hurt the U.S. as well, “because some students would choose to stay and work in the U.S., contributing to the competitiveness of the country. Many U.S. companies, especially high-tech companies, would probably protest it,” he said.

According to data from National Science Foundation, 72% of foreign students who graduate with STEM doctorates were still in America 10 years after receiving their degrees. Among Chinese students, that percentage went up to 90%.

Fang added that the bill has sent a signal to international students so that even if it does not become law, it will reduce the number of Chinese students applying to US graduate schools in the future.

“I feel bad for students who have not done anything to become victims in the crossfire between two countries as [the relationship] turns sour,” he said.