China-US relations

China will become a dangerous competitor in science and technology if the US treats it like one

Chi Wang says if the US sees Chinese graduate students as a threat to its scientific and technological knowledge, and seeks to lock them out, Beijing will react by blocking opportunities for collaboration and ultimately leave the US behind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 2:16am

A US Senate subcommittee hearing this month, originally titled “A Thousand Talents: China’s Campaign to Infiltrate and Exploit US Academia”, refused for the first time in two decades a committee member’s request to testify. Later changed to “Student Visa Integrity: Protecting Educational Opportunity and National Security”, the hearing served as a clear attempt to paint all Chinese students and scholars in the United States as potential spies.

Ranking member Senator Richard Durbin invited Representative Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, to testify on behalf of the Chinese-American community. Because the request was declined, she had no choice but to submit written testimony instead.

That an elected US government official whose work and qualifications clearly align with the hearing’s proposals was declined an invitation to testify raises more than a few questions. Based on the context and discussions that took place at the hearing, I have to wonder if Chu’s own background is the reason she was denied in-person testimony.

In recent years, the US has seen a rise of vague, sweeping claims about “intellectual property theft” directed at people of Chinese descent. Chinese students and Chinese-Americans, like scientist Sherry Chen, have been disproportionately profiled in espionage cases. This subcommittee hearing appears to have been another excuse to target people of Chinese descent, despite little evidence of so-called “espionage”.

The Associated Press reported this month that the Donald Trump administration already plans to limit Chinese graduate students to one-year visas instead of the usual five years, due to concerns about “intellectual property theft”. In February, FBI director Christopher Wray declared the “threat” from Chinese students requires a “whole of society response”.

Alongside the rising rate of espionage cases against Chinese-Americans, this shows signs of repeating a dark and little-acknowledged time in American history of anti-Asian racism: the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps and the “Red Scare” among them. I witnessed the era of McCarthyism, and though we are not repeating it just yet, there are some warning signs that we should not ignore.

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The subcommittee should understand that the effects of xenophobia against Chinese, despite claims of intelligence theft and spying, would be detrimental to the US as well as China.

The Washington Post recently published an article that sees China’s research industry taking off. The US stands to gain from collaborating with China: research opportunities in China for overseas scientists are becoming more appealing than they are in the US due to available funding and access. Although China still has areas where research can improve, it has plenty else to offer in areas that will challenge America’s leading position on technological development. Make no mistake, if the US continues treating information and innovation as a competition, China will compete as the dangerous competitor it already is.

In the late 1950s, the National Science Foundation provided a US$100,000 grant to the Library of Congress Science and Technology Division to invest in monitoring scientific developments in China. Despite the political turmoil of 20th-century China, the foundation’s Foreign Science Division predicted that China had the potential to be among the most powerful centres of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) development.

At the time, I was the only Chinese-American working at the Library of Congress with a science degree. John Sherrod, then head of the Science and Technology Division at the library, appointed me to be the first Asian-American supervisor of a scientific initiative at the Library of Congress. I worked in his division until I was hired as assistant head of the Chinese and Korea Section in the Orientalia Division in 1967, where I stayed until 2004.

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The library helped hundreds of members of congress and senators, including Ted Kennedy and Mike Mansfield, write reports on China-related issues. Under my direction, we compiled a directory for science and research institutions in China, which became a powerful resource tool for other American institutions.

We also worked on several of our own research projects. I predicted in the late 1950s that China would develop the field within a relatively short time, and it did. China invested in education and research out of a determination to stand on its own, free of Western influence. American universities used our directory of Chinese science journals and research to monitor China’s advancements and learn from them.

The irony here as it relates to the subcommittee’s hearing should be clear. China can and will develop with or without the US, but the US is very eager to take what knowledge it can from China.

About a third of foreign students enrolled in US institutions of higher learning are of Chinese origin. Limiting their stay would harm research and technological advancements. It would limit a major investment in the US economy. As an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, I shared my knowledge of China with American and Chinese students alike; as a Chinese-American immigrant, I was proud to do so.

I was offered an opportunity in the 1960s to work for American intelligence, but I turned it down. Knowledge should be shared, not restricted. Jill Welch, deputy executive director for public policy for the Nafsa Association of International Educators, reminded the subcommittee that, “ is through open collaboration, the influx of international perspectives, and the free exchange of ideas that the United States will prosper in the global economy”.

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Rather than accusing Chinese students of being spies, the American government should increase federal funding of its own talent recruitment and intellectual exchange with China. In its imperial years, China was one of the most technologically advanced areas of the world. Although political turmoil slowed its growth, that is only a blip on the vast timeline of Chinese history.

China certainly has the capability to leave the US behind, relegating it to a second-class producer of technology and scientific research. If the US continues to lock out Chinese students from the education market, China will surpass the US on its own and not look back. But if the two countries collaborate – knowledge is meant to be shared – then both stand to gain as equals.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation