Chinese students at the commencement ceremony of Columbia University, New York City, May 2018
Michael Nagle / Xinhua News Agency / eyevine / Redux

Getting tough on China is the rare goal that unites people across the political spectrum in a bitterly divided Washington. As the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden works to turn this unifying sentiment into policy, one thorny question stands out: What should be done about students from China in U.S. universities? There are around 120,000 Chinese students in U.S. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs today, up from 30,000 in 2005. Officials fear that some of these students are moonlighting as “collectors” of intellectual property for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In recent years, prominent figures such as Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, have gone so far as to push for an outright ban on Chinese STEM students. The administration of former President Donald Trump came close to enacting such a ban. A Pew Research Center poll released in March 2021 found that 55 percent of Americans support limits on Chinese students, up from 40 percent in late 2019. The new administration may have sharply different views on immigration from those of its predecessor, but it is also grappling with the potential risks of Chinese students in the United States.

Kicking out Chinese students might seem like tough, decisive policymaking, but it’s exactly the wrong way to protect the United States’ scientific and technological advantage. Welcoming foreign talent isn’t simply a virtuous position to take—in fact, that openness is at the core of U.S. power. The United States gains tremendously from the inflow of Chinese students, and China loses from its top talent going abroad. The Biden administration should work to reduce the risk of technology transfer, including through intelligence and research security reforms. But driving Chinese students away could cripple U.S. innovation and supercharge China’s technological progress. The United States should make the most of its talent advantage, not throw it away on an ineffective ban.

A GENUINE THREAT 

Innovation in science and technology is a top priority for Beijing. The Chinese government has made no secret of its ambition to leapfrog the United States in this realm and has long worked to adapt, perfect, and deploy foreign scientific and technological innovations in China. To this end, the CCP works to mobilize the global Chinese diaspora, using tools such as talent recruitment programs and state-sponsored technology “cooperation societies” based abroad. Technology transfer activities range from the illegal theft or reverse engineering of proprietary technology to the quiet, systematic exploitation of open sources and scientific exchange; though this exploitation may not technically violate the law, it undermines scientific norms of reciprocity, neutrality, and transparency and threatens the technological leadership of democratic nations.

These practices have been going on for decades. But as U.S.-Chinese tensions have mounted, Washington has begun to pay greater attention to the activities of Chinese students and scholars. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified that “the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country.” Others worry that Chinese students are simply picking up and leaving after graduation, bringing their new skills and knowledge back home to benefit the CCP.

There is real cause for concern. Beijing is willing to break laws and norms in pursuit of advanced technology. The technologies it seeks, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and gene sequencing, support China’s abuses in its western autonomous region of Xinjiang and the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. A string of recent arrests illustrates how Beijing may be enlisting some Chinese-born scholars in these efforts. The United States has accused one researcher, allegedly a PLA officer, of entering the country on false pretenses and copying the research and floor plans of his host laboratory in California. Another Chinese researcher allegedly took biological samples from a Boston hospital, hid them in a sock in his luggage, and tried to board a flight to China; federal agents intercepted him at the airport.

According to best estimates, such bad actors form a small minority of Chinese STEM students and scholars in the United States; perhaps one in a thousand, according to former U.S. counterintelligence chief Bill Evanina. But given the harm they might cause, does their presence pose too much of a risk? In our conversations with national security policymakers, we’ve been asked time and again whether welcoming Chinese STEM students still makes sense in this competitive era. Wouldn’t it be safer to keep them out?

A COUNTERPRODUCTIVE BAN

Banning swaths of Chinese students—whether those in sensitive fields, graduate students, or all STEM students, as some policymakers have advocated—might seem like the “better safe than sorry” approach. But it probably wouldn’t do much to counter China’s technology transfer efforts.

U.S. universities have no monopoly in strategic fields such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. If the United States unilaterally bans Chinese students, they can opt for Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, or other top academic destinations, where any bad actors among them will still have access to cutting-edge research. Many countries have begun to consider the security risks visiting students and scholars might pose, but no government seems likely to deploy a broad ban. More likely, governments will jump at the chance to recruit talented students and scholars who are unable to go to the United States. Washington would effectively lose twice: forfeiting talent to other countries would undermine U.S. innovation without preventing the CCP from accessing foreign technology.   

A ban on students also zeroes in on the wrong population. The most serious espionage threats are likely to come from more senior scientists or engineers who work in institutions that develop sensitive or proprietary technologies. Almost 90 percent of U.S. research and development takes place outside academia in private companies, government labs, and nonprofits. Even within academia, professors and postdocs do the bulk of cutting-edge work. Targeting Chinese-born students wouldn’t do much to protect the vast majority of U.S. R & D, and lumping them together with senior researchers and engineers, as many policymakers unfortunately do, risks serious harm to U.S. universities and companies. Rather than banning large numbers of students, the government can protect sensitive technologies, such as those developed at national laboratories or through defense funding, by using better intelligence capabilities and new research security institutions and through cooperation with allies.

INNOVATION IMPERILED

A ban on Chinese STEM students would have the wider effect of hampering innovation in the United States. Advocates of a ban overlook or underestimate the United States’ gains from attracting Chinese talent—and the fact that those gains come at China’s expense, effectively providing a double boost to the United States’ technological advantage.

China may be able to exploit the openness of the United States to some extent, but in the process it also suffers serious brain drain, contributing to Chinese high-skilled labor shortages at home. For example, a 2019 study found that three-quarters of the world’s top Chinese-born AI researchers worked outside of China at the time, with the vast majority being in the United States. In fact, U.S. universities and companies hosted more than twice as many top Chinese AI researchers than did their Chinese counterparts.

A ban on Chinese students would hamper innovation in the United States.

Most talented students who leave China for study don’t soon return home. Instead, they stay abroad for years, and in many cases permanently, contributing in meaningful ways to their host countries. Around 85 percent of Chinese-born graduates from U.S. STEM Ph.D. programs stay in the United States for at least five years after graduating. Contrary to anecdotal reports of a “reverse brain drain” to China, stay rates have not decreased in recent years. Moreover, economists have found that most of these Ph.D. students represent the cream of the crop of Chinese education, having graduated from a “very restricted set of extremely selective Chinese universities.”

Today, many of these graduates and other Chinese immigrants are making major advances in the United States in fields such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology, running university centers that do cutting-edge research and teaching, and founding technology companies that employ tens of thousands of Americans. Chinese-born researchers such as Chih-Tang Sah helped establish the U.S. semiconductor industry. Fei-Fei Li created ImageNet, the database that helped ignite the boom in AI innovation this past decade. While leading research at Stanford University and Google, she also launched AI4ALL, a nonprofit that runs artificial intelligence training camps for young U.S. students. Eric Yuan, the Chinese-born founder of the videoconferencing app Zoom, studied in the United States and started his company after a successful engineering career in Silicon Valley; Zoom now employs more than a thousand people across the United States. 

High-level CCP officials are painfully aware of their brain-drain problem. They complain that “the number of top talents lost in China ranks first in the world.” Chinese state media have said that immigration reforms that would make it easier for Chinese students and scholars to come to the United States “would pose a huge challenge for China, which has been making great efforts to attract and retain talent.” Meanwhile, a state-run think tank argued that restrictive U.S. immigration policies give China “opportunities to bolster its ranks of high-end talent.” In short, China’s leaders are dissatisfied with the country’s significant loss of talent—and they celebrate when the U.S. government imposes broad visa restrictions.  

STAYING OPEN

An open society comes with inevitable risks. Keeping the United States open to Chinese STEM students will indeed create opportunities for a small number of bad actors, and officials should not downplay or ignore that concern. But in the global competition for technological leadership, closing the door on Chinese talent would weaken the United States, not strengthen it. The large majority of Chinese students who come to the United States and stay constitute wins for the United States—and losses for China.

Many in the U.S. national security community recognize this reality. In its final report, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence emphasizes the brain-drain dilemma that U.S. talent recruitment creates for the CCP, calling for continued openness to preserve the United States’ talent advantage in artificial intelligence. Even senior Trump administration defense officials, rarely considered China doves, have called for the United States to “double down” on recruiting Chinese students. Trump’s former national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, recently argued that the United States should issue more visas and provide better paths to citizenship for Chinese nationals.

At the same time, the risks of technology transfer are real, and policymakers have many ways to reduce them. Staying open to Chinese students does not mean maintaining the status quo.

The U.S. government should improve its ability to collect, synthesize, and act on open sources, such as financial markets, patent registries, and academic publishers. This type of information, traditionally neglected by U.S. intelligence agencies, is crucial for the accurate tracking of sensitive Chinese science and technology activities. It should build new research security institutions that can support and collaborate with private-sector and academic researchers on the “frontlines” of the technology transfer threat. And it should selectively deny visas to individuals closely affiliated with the Chinese military. In line with the Biden administration’s emphasis on revitalizing the United States’ traditional alliances, it should also encourage other countries to adopt similar policies and, where possible, share relevant intelligence; it will be impossible to slow down China’s acquisition of foreign technology if the United States acts alone.   

But the best way for the United States to retain its technological strength is by building on one of its most enduring assets: its ability to attract and retain the world’s best talent, including Chinese talent. China continues to spend lavishly on science and technology, and any assets that can simply be bought—such as supercomputing power, research facilities, or large data sets—cannot be relied upon to form the long-term foundations for U.S. technological and scientific advantage. Despite decades of effort, however, China has not been able to replicate U.S. successes in attracting talent from abroad. This fundamental talent advantage is the United States’ to lose.

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  • REMCO ZWETSLOOT is a Research Fellow with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.
  • ZACHARY ARNOLD is a Research Fellow with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.
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