US-China academic partnerships have been blossoming for 40-years now and have long been central to maintaining civil ties between the two starkly different governments.
But recent diplomatic developments, exacerbated by the actions of both Beijing and Washington, have placed that relationship under strain.
As trade wars rage and national security remains threatened, it is not just the collaborations that are under threat at universities, but researchers’ livelihoods, student access to the US, and university funding – placing academia on the front lines of diplomacy.
While the fraught relationship between Beijing and Washington has been receiving more attention since US President Donald Trump sparked a trade war, the Chinese and their ruling China’s Communist Party (CCP) have long been a concern for US security officials who are concerned academia, in particular collaborations, are a front for propaganda and infiltration.
Tensions are nothing new – but academia has an important role
In February 2018, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray told the Senate intelligence committee that China is exploiting America’s open research and development environment and that the intelligence threat from Beijing would require “a whole-of-society response” involving not just the intelligence sector, but the academic and private sectors as well.
Wray reiterated this point in April while addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, telling the audience:
“More than ever, the adversaries’ targets are our nation’s assets, our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China.”
In the same speech, Wray pinpointed students and researchers, and America’s open academic culture specifically as a current threat.
“I do think that the academic sector needs to be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about how others may exploit the very open, collaborative research environment that we have in this country and revere in this country,” he said.
“I’m encouraged, actually, by the number of universities around the country that are taking very thoughtful, responsible steps to make sure that they’re not being abused and that their information, proprietary research, confidential information, isn’t stolen – which is happening, all over the country, and it’s a real problem.”
The Black List
In May, the United States Department of Defence said it would no longer fund Chinese-language programmes at universities that host Confucius Institutes – organisations that have long been seen as a crucial tool in China’s soft-power mission.
As scrutiny mounts, more Chinese companies, universities and research institutions are being blacklisted by the US government making it increasingly difficult for US universities to stay within the rules.
Tech giant Huawei was added to the Entity List in May after years of suspicion from security agencies who feared the company’s research partnerships and relationships with US universities could be nefarious.
This finally came to a head when a bipartisan group of 26 lawmakers called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to investigate the Huawei Innovation Research Programme and other programmes through which the Chinese company partners with institutes of higher education across the US.
Trump upped the ante when in August he signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), banning universities from using telecommunications equipment, video recording services and networking components made by Huawei, and regulating research partnerships with China. Any organisations found in violation could lose their federal funding.
The Department of Education also stepped up pressure on institutions to declare all foreign funding, opening its first investigations into the matter in June.
Students and researchers caught in the crossfire
The FBI has even gone so far as to encourage US research universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions.
The US has also stiffened rules for Chinese visa holders in some STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
America’s tightening restrictions pushed Beijing to warn any prospective Chinese students to reassess their prospects for obtaining a US visa. In early June, China’s Ministry of Education urged students and academics to “raise their risk assessment” after an increase in visa delays and denials for those who have applied to study in the US.
Given the environment, US universities are bracing for a decline in Chinese students, who currently make up a third of all international students.
This has understandably raised concerns for the future of collaborations, which have for so long been drivers of innovation and the foundation of successful economies.
Within China itself, academic collaborations with foreign universities are already slowing with the termination of 234 partnerships by the Ministry of Education.
In America, the person-by-person approach to vetting candidates encouraged by the intelligence agencies is raising problems of its own as educators voice fears of racial discrimination of Chinese scientists and accusing the government of criminalising “researching while Asian.”
‘Researching while Asian’
Leading cancer researcher Wu Xifeng was hounded from her job as director of the Centre for Translational and Public Health Genomics at the University of Texas MD Anderson after a three-month investigation into her professional ties in China.
Wu left her position in January but her supporters still claim she is innocent, citing no evidence, and no accusation, that she’d given China any proprietary information.
“Innocent yet meaningful scientific collaborations have been portrayed as somehow corrupt and detrimental to American interests. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Randy Legerski, a retired Vice Chair of MD Anderson’s genetics department and former chair of its faculty senate, told CleanTechnica.
This is just one example. But given the mounting culture of fear and the increasing of cross border collaboration, cases like Wu’s are on the rise.
In an editorial for Bloomberg, Peter Waldman warns that such attitudes towards Chinese researchers risks stymying life-saving research and curtailing the innovation that has so far been able to flourish under university collaborations.
It also risks casting “cold-war-style suspicion” on Chinese-American and Chinese academics, and creating a hostile environment that could keep them away for years to come.
Overall numbers of Chinese students, including the number of newly enrolled doctoral students, have already started to decline, signalling a likely trend that has some of America’s biggest industry titans concerned.
This drop in applications understandably has many universities concerned, especially given the tightening of state funding and many institutions struggling to make ends meet.
But while the Trump-inspired distrust has disrupted the field of collaborations – not to mention, people’s lives – a word from the man himself could signal a softer approach going forward.
At a news conference during the G20 summit in Japan, President Trump seemed to back away from his own administration’s hostile stance toward Chinese students, saying that he wants more people from China to study at American colleges – and to stay and work after graduation.
China’s President Xi Jinping reportedly pushed Trump to treat Chinese students in a “fair way,” prompting Trump to agree there should be a “smart person’s waiver” on visas for international students and educated immigrants.
Whether this will become policy or just more playing to the cameras, only time will tell.