FILE - A Chinese woman checks her documents as she walks past the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, May 6, 2011.
FILE - A Chinese woman checks her documents as she walks past the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, May 6, 2011.

WASHINGTON - Anecdotal reports suggest that both the U.S. and Chinese governments are tightening restrictions on travel by academics between the two countries, leaving experts worried about the impact those actions could have on mutual understanding between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.

In recent weeks, news media in both countries have recounted the stories of academics, some of whom have been traveling between the U.S. and China for decades, suddenly being informed that they would no longer be allowed to do so. One Chinese scholar was intercepted by FBI agents at Los Angeles International Airport in January as he prepared to return to Beijing. According to the New York Times, the agents took his passport and crossed out the 10-year visa that had allowed him to travel freely between the two countries.

Last week Michael Pillsbury, who works for the Hudson Institute and has advised the Trump administration on China policy, revealed to the website Axios that a routine visa application he filed in order to be able to attend a conference in Beijing was slow-walked by the Chinese embassy in Washington for so long that he was unable to attend.  

While there are no available records that would indicate precisely how many academics have been denied visas in the recent past, or how much of an increase there has actually been in denials, the impression many in the field of U.S.-China relations have is of a notable escalation. (The Global Times, a tabloid newspaper under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, reported that 280 Chinese academics have had visas revoked or denied since 2018, but provided no source for that figure.)

Writing in the South China Morning Post last week, David Shambaugh, a professor of Asian studies and international affairs, and director of the China Policy Program, at George Washington University said that clamping down on academic exchanges can only hurt both countries.

FILE - A Chinese flag and a partial view of China'
FILE - A partial view of China's embassy in Washington are seen in the U.S. capital, Feb. 19, 2015.

“This kind of tit-for-tat action is a race to the bottom, only hurts both sides and adds to mutual suspicions,” he said, “While it may be tempting for each side to retaliate against the other, it is mutually harmful. Both governments should depoliticize scholarly visas and allow unfettered academic exchanges between the two countries – so as to contribute to scholarly research and enhance mutual understanding.”

Visa denials are not a new tactic for either country, but in the past, most of the denials have been one-way. China has long resisted allowing academics whose research is critical of the Communist Party into the country. Authors of high-profile works, such as U.S. academics who provided material for a 2004 book on China’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang, have found themselves on what amounts to blacklists, barring them entry to the country.

This time, though, the impetus for an uptick in visa denials appears to be coming from the U.S., where officials are increasingly concerned about the Chinese government’s power to coerce non-government officials, such as university professors and think-tank researchers, into gathering information on behalf of state intelligence services.

These concerns echo those of other government officials who have raised national security concerns around the use of telecommunications equipment made by Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE. Chinese law compels companies operating there to assist government intelligence services if asked to do so, leaving U.S. officials concerned that Chinese equipment could be engineered to create “back-door” access to critical U.S. infrastructure.

Chinese companies have already been implicated in multiple instance of industrial espionage and intellectual property theft, and there appears to be concern among U.S. officials that those tactics could bleed over into other settings as well.

Indeed, over the weekend, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center confirmed that it had fired two Chinese researchers and were in the process of firing a third after an investigation suggested that they had been involved in efforts to steal data related to federally funded research.

FILE - People waiting to apply for visas sit outsi
FILE - People waiting to apply for visas sit outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing, China, May 3, 2011.

Dr. Peter Pisters, the center’s president, announced the move in a statement Sunday.

“A small but significant number of individuals are working with government sponsorship to exfiltrate intellectual property that has been created with the support of U.S. taxpayers, private donors and industry collaborators,” he said.

The firings come several months after the National Institutes of Health issued a blanket warning to U.S. biomedical researchers about Chinese nationals stealing information and sometimes going so far as to set up “shadow laboratories” in their home country to replicate proprietary research methods. The NIH has indicated that there are dozens of ongoing investigations around the country into activities similar to those that resulted in the firings at the University of Texas.

Some experts worry that the list of people and organizations that are reciprocally barred from travel between the U.S. and China will only grow with time.

In an interview with VOA, National Foundation for American Policy executive director Stuart Anderson said he worries that the recent visa denials are only the most recent step down a dangerous path -- one that could negatively affect the U.S. economy.

If the U.S. government keeps expanding the scope of industries and individuals that are barred from the country, he said, the result could be a reduction in the number of foreign companies willing to even try to do business here.

He added, “The U.S. is usually good at eventually coming up with a balance. But if we start to go too far in a direction of protection in that area, you might just start to see some unfortunate unintended consequences.”

But not everyone is pessimistic. Pillsbury, the Trump administration China adviser who missed a conference this month after his visa was delayed, told VOA that he is confident that things will improve.

“I'm optimistic [the] Chinese government will eventually give me another visa,” he said. “I visited China five times in the last two years. I have many friends in China. There are more conferences to attend this year, so I think there should be a ceasefire in the visa war. Too many scholars are needed in Beijing to come to Washington, and Washington to go to Beijing.”

Citing former Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s call to “decrease misunderstandings [and] increase trust” he said, “We cannot implement this guidance from Jiang Zemin and other Chinese leaders unless we have a free flow of scholars who are experts on U.S.-China relations.”