SHANGHAI, CHINA—Scientists in China are concerned about what they see as growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. They dismiss claims of a vast conspiracy to steal U.S. intellectual property and worry that new visa restrictions, scrutiny of export of scientific devices, and U.S. investigations of Chinese and Chinese American scientists will hinder international collaborations. That could harm both countries’ research efforts as well as global scientific progress, many say.
Increasingly, “Chinese scholars will hesitate to work with collaborators in the U.S.,” warns Cao Cong, a China science policy specialist at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. The Chinese government may also steer funding away from U.S.-based projects, he adds. Indeed, visa issues are threatening additional Chinese funding for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), an international project planned for a site on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Claims that China is taking advantage of the openness of the U.S. scientific enterprise have grown for years, but the administration of President Donald Trump has ratcheted up the rhetoric. China is trying to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense,” Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), told a U.S. Senate hearing on 24 July. Investigations initiated at the request of FBI and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) have led to a number of Chinese and Chinese American scientists resigning or being dismissed from U.S. universities and research institutes amid claims they misrepresented ties to China.
The accusations rankle China’s scientists, many of whom cherish their professional and personal ties to U.S. colleagues. In emails to U.S. officials and institution heads that he shared with journalists, neuroscientist Rao Yi from Peking University in Beijing has said bluntly that the notion of a systematic effort by the Chinese government to acquire intellectual property “is but one of the many lies by Trump and his administration.”
But overall, “Reactions from the scientific community are more varied,” Cao says; there are Chinese scientists who feel that some of the researchers who lost positions in the United States may not have been “following the right way to do science.” On the Chinese blogging site Sina Weibo, for instance, commenters had a variety of opinions about an NIH official’s recent claim that scientists fraudulently said they worked 8 months of the year in the United States, while also being committed to 9 months at an overseas institution. Some accused U.S. authorities of being anti-Chinese, but just as many found fault with the alleged behavior.
In June 2018, new U.S. restrictions on Chinese graduate students came into effect, shortening visa durations from 5 years to 1 year for those interested in aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing. The threat of increased scrutiny may deter students in other fields as well. In March, the number of Chinese students in the United States was down 2% from the previous year, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security statistics—after years of increases.
In June, the Chinese education ministry warned that the United States was rejecting an increasing number of Chinese student visa applications. Based on students receiving Chinese government support—and very early in the application cycle—the ministry reported that 13.5% of 182 applicants had been denied visas in the first quarter of the year. In contrast, only roughly 3% of 10,313 applicants were denied visas in 2018.
Visa problems also affect established researchers—even in Hong Kong. A senior scientist at a well-known influenza research lab there says that a number of postdocs invited to present recent findings at conferences in the United States did not get visas in time to attend. “This is ironic, given the fact that Hong Kong scientists have contributed so much to global public health in relation to emerging infectious diseases,” the scientist says. Several groups in China also report problems getting specialized experimental equipment from the United States because of export controls. Yet, like many scientists reporting visa troubles, most hesitate to complain openly lest they draw attention to their research programs.
One factor underlying U.S. suspicions, some academics say, is the outdated belief that scientific knowledge and expertise flow one way—from the United States to China. “That may have been the case years ago, but exchanges have gone from being asymmetrical to now having greater parity,” says Denis Simon, an American who is executive vice chancellor at Duke Kunshan University near here.
The TMT is an example of the strains affecting China-U.S. cooperation. The project has so far been funded mostly by private money, but it needs partners for its estimated $10 billion cost. (Construction is now held up by protests.) As a partner, the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing has committed its own funds and in-kind contributions, but the current climate has made Chinese funding agencies reluctant to chip in more, says NAOC Deputy Director-General Xue Suijian. The question Chinese officials now ask, Xue says: “Given the fact that the U.S. government does not offer Chinese scientists visas, how can you carry out any cooperation?”