Visa Restrictions for Chinese Students Alarm Academia

Le Fang, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University at Buffalo, received a five-year F-1 visa in 2015. But the new policy could hurt his friends whose visas recently expired, he said.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s confrontation with China is beginning to ripple through American academic and research institutions, as a crackdown on visas for certain Chinese citizens has left the higher education community wondering how it will adapt to the administration’s effort to stop intellectual property theft and slow China’s push for technological supremacy.

Educators and academic groups fear that the additional scrutiny could hinder scientific innovation, alienate talented applicants or intensify aggressions toward Chinese scientists already in the country.

Academics are already wrestling with the increased attention. At an aerospace conference in Georgia last month, Ella Atkins, a University of Michigan professor, recalled a colleague approaching her with a dilemma.

The colleague, an assistant professor at another university, had recently led and submitted a research proposal for a federal grant. But he worried that because he was Chinese, the judges would be biased against his team.

“He said, ‘I need to figure out how to take myself off as the P.I., the principal investigator, if that’s going to compromise our project’s chances of being accepted,’” Ms. Atkins said, declining to name the academic for fear of jeopardizing his proposal. The professor, she added, was even considering withdrawing from the project completely to avoid holding back his co-researchers.

It is a sentiment that some, such as Representative Judy Chu, Democrat of California, believe underscores a tone of racism behind the policy change. The restrictions, she said, equate to targeting “an entire ethnic group of people for suspicion that they’re spies for China.”

“I think we should take specific security threats seriously, but each of those threats should be identified by the threat, not by racial groups,” said Ms. Chu, the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Since June 11, the State Department has been restricting visas for Chinese graduate students studying in sensitive research fields to one year, with the chance to reapply every year. The move rolls back an Obama-era policy that allowed Chinese citizens to secure five-year student visas.

Le Fang, a Ph.D. student from China studying computer science at the University at Buffalo, locked up a five-year F-1 visa in 2015. But the new policy could hurt his friends whose visas recently expired, he said. They may have to fly back to China to get new visas, and they risk denials partway through their academic career.

“I quite understand the security concern of the possible restriction,” Mr. Fang said, but “most of us never talk about politics and never work with mainland people.”

The American intelligence community, however, has increasingly seen the country’s academic institutions as vulnerable to espionage, in part because they provide a collaborative environment where cutting-edge research and technology are openly handled and developed.

At a Senate hearing in February, Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, warned lawmakers of China’s efforts to undermine the United States’ economy and security through “the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting.”

“One of the things we’re trying to do,” Mr. Wray added, “is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat on their end. And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”

And a White House report last month detailing China’s “economic aggression” criticized recruiting efforts that aim to lure experts, academics and entrepreneurs from abroad to prestigious Chinese research institutions and universities. The National Intelligence Council has accused one such program, the Thousand Talents plan, of facilitating “the legal and illicit transfer of U.S. technology, intellectual property and know-how” to China.

But Chinese graduate students are largely seeking better opportunities for themselves, said Jenny Lee, a University of Arizona professor who studies international student mobility.

A National Science Foundation study published last year found that from 2005 to 2015, nearly nine of 10 Chinese students who had earned Ph.D.s intended to remain in the United States.

Ms. Lee said the new restrictions could deter foreign students from enrolling in American universities. “Why would a student be willing to commit to a U.S. degree without a guarantee that they would have a steady visa?” she said.

The policy takes into account only the risks of foreign students studying in the United States, without acknowledging the “incredible positive side,” according to Stephen A. Orlins, the president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

One of those benefits, said Yolanda Gil, director of knowledge technologies at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, is the supply of talent and innovation that international students provide.

It would be “a great loss,” she said, not to be able to interact with and learn from Chinese graduate students and visiting scholars at research conferences, where they regularly present projects and contribute to larger innovations in artificial intelligence.

Another advantage is financial. In 2016, the more than one million international students studying at colleges and universities in the United States contributed $39 billion to the American economy, according to the Institute of International Education. Almost a third of those students were from China.

The visa restrictions are the latest example of how Mr. Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration has touched higher education. His ban on travel from certain mostly Muslim nations has raised concerns about scientific research being stifled, and his administration announced in May that it would crack down on international students who overstay their visas. And some experts have cited the country’s uncertain political climate as a reason enrollment of first-time international students declined last fall.

The shift is also another setback in the United States’ relationship with China, coming amid a trade fight between Washington and Beijing that shows no signs of abating. The Trump administration has said the tariffs it has imposed on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods are necessary to curb the unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft that threaten the United States’ economy and national security.

Details about the visa restrictions remain murky. At a June 6 Senate hearing, Edward J. Ramotowski, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department, confirmed that new screening instructions were given to American embassies and consulates “to deal with certain individuals from China.”

He did not disclose which areas of study would be subject to additional scrutiny, but The Associated Press has reported that the restrictions focus on robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing — areas where China has pushed to bolster its presence in the global market. The Bureau of Consular Affairs declined to comment on the specifics of the changes.

The American Council on Education has questioned how the policy will be carried out, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the organization. Would someone taking a course in aviation, for example, be vetted the same way as someone majoring in the subject?

“We called the Department of Homeland Security the day it was announced and said, ‘Can we talk about this?’ And they said, ‘Sure, we can, but we’re reading about it the same way you are, so we got to figure it out ourselves,’” he said.

With the contours of the policy still unclear, educators and researchers are trying to assess how it will affect the way they work.

Trevor Darrell, a director of the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research laboratory, said that the restrictions would be “a significant and unfortunate inconvenience for many group members,” but that they would not “fundamentally change” the lab’s ability to do research.

Others fear the policy could have a bigger impact.

The American science, technology, engineering and math community, particularly at top-tier universities, heavily relies on foreign applicants to bolster its research, said Richard M. Voyles, director of the Purdue Robotics Accelerator.

Finding qualified students to replace the Chinese researchers in his lab would prove particularly challenging, Mr. Voyles said. “I have an extremely hard time getting even one American to apply to my lab,” he said.

But Yangyang Cheng, a Chinese particle physicist and postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, suspects that more common than researchers being deterred from attending American universities will be researchers returning home soon after earning a degree — a “self-inflicted wound” that only furthers China’s technological and military ambitions.

“Home as in still China, because they would see that the U.S. would never see them as one of their own,” Ms. Cheng said, “that they’re spies, guilty until proven innocent.”

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