On the front lines of the China conflict

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When I met Xi Xiaoxing five years ago, he was trying to reclaim his life.

In some ways, he still is.

In May 2015, Xi, a professor of physics at Temple University, was arrested at his suburban Philadelphia home in front of his wife and two daughters. He was accused of secretly passing research to authorities back in his native China in exchange for what prosecutors called “lucrative and prestigious” appointments.

When I spoke with Xi’s physics colleagues, they were baffled by the charges. Not only did Xi have a reputation as a stand-up guy, but his area of research, superconducting thin films, was not sensitive or secret. Authorities seemed to have misunderstood the science. Four months after the initial charges, prosecutors conceded as much, dropping the case against Xi.

Xi later filed suit against the FBI, accusing agents of ignoring warnings from his fellow scientists that they were misconstruing normal academic collaboration as something criminal. He’s still waiting for a judge to rule if the case can move forward.

Last week I reached out to him to talk about the case of Gang Chen. Like Xi, Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, has been charged with hiding his affiliations with China. Many of Chen’s colleagues have protested that much of what he is accused of is part of the day-to-day activities of a professor in a highly global research environment. (You can read my coverage of the Chen case here.)

Xi’s life, professionally and personally, has never returned to normal. Federal grants are the life blood of the type of basic research Xi does, but he now largely avoids applying for them, fearful that he could be caught in the dragnet of investigations that snared Chen. “I’m scared,” he told me.

Once a prolific researcher, Xi’s output is much smaller as a result. He spends more time giving speeches about the scrutiny of academic research and of Chinese-American scientists.

Xiaoxing Xi, Harvard Physics Colloquium — 1/25/2021

In recent years, university research has only moved more to the front lines of the United States’ conflict with China. The China Initiative, started by the Trump administration with the goal of “disrupting and deterring” Chinese national-security threats, has led to a dozen cases against American academics and researchers — just last week, a former University of Florida professor was charged with taking $1.75 million in federal grants while allegedly hiding support he received from the Chinese government.

Few people are arguing against disclosure. In fact, I’ve heard a mostly positive response from higher-ed groups about a provision in the recently passed defense authorization act that would require applicants for federal grants to disclose all sources of support, domestic and foreign. The hope is that it will bring consistency and clarity to a hodgepodge disclosure process.

But there is worry about efforts to use the criminal courts to deal with foreign-funding requirements. Is it an overly punitive tool? Chen could face 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000; Xi was threatened with an 80-year sentence.

Xi had a good career, but he fears the impact of the current environment on younger scientists. Will the next generation of Chen’s and Xi’s want to come from China to make their academic careers in America? What could their loss mean to American science?

“There is a problem of Chinese influence that needs to be dealt with,” Xi told me. “But there’s a right way to deal with it and a wrong way — and the wrong way only hurts us.”

Read more: The Harvard Crimson landed an interview with the U.S. attorney who brought the Chen case.

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Quantifying Visa Restrictions

Foreign-funds reporting isn’t the only place where Sino-American tensions have touched academe. Among the other fronts: visas.

In May, the U.S. government said it would revoke or deny visas to certain Chinese graduate students and scholars who are affiliated with institutions with ties to the Chinese military. One of the questions: Just how broad would the impact be?

Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology has tried to quantify the scope, at least when it comes to graduate students. CSET says 3,000 to 5,000 students in STEM fields could be affected. That’s about one percent of overall Chinese enrollments, but it could be as many as one in five new graduate students in STEM from China each year, “if we’re in the right ballpark,” Remco Zwetsloot, one of the study’s authors, told me.

Assessing the impact on researchers is difficult because there’s less centralized data collection of researcher visas.

It remains unclear how the presidential order is being enforced, Zwetsloot said, whether it’s being used to vet applicants on a case-by-case basis or applied in a blanket way to those with certain affiliations. But the vague language of the proclamation could encourage the Biden administration to retain it because officials would have leeway in enforcing it, he said.

Whither Chinese Applicants?

2021 seems likely to be a year of anxious prognosticating, as we all wait to see the impact of the pandemic. When it comes to international enrollments, the tea leaves contained in the latest Common App data were decidedly mixed: Overall international applications were up by 9 percent, according to data collected through January 18. But applicants from China fell 18 percent from a year ago.

Why the divergence between China and the rest of the world? In general, the consensus seems to be a combination of fallout from the pandemic — the continued near-shutdown of U.S. visa processing in China, a special ban on travel from China, and rhetoric around the “China virus,” to name a few — along with pre-existing issues, like the restrictions on STEM visas, that seemed to single out Chinese students.

Andrew Hang Chen of WholeRen Group, which counsels Chinese students, points to changes such as the stepped-up scrutiny of Chinese students and researchers at American ports of entry. Searching students’ computers and cell phones can make the U.S. seem like “a rude host,” Chen said.

“It sends the message, ‘Tell everyone in the village we don’t you.’ Once the trust is broken, it’s hard to rebuild.”

Still, Chen told me that the Biden administration could turn things around by sending a strong message that Chinese students are welcome in the U.S. America is “still #1,” he said, “it’s just not the #1 choice without a second thought.”

Stay in touch. Email me with news and story ideas, latitudesnews@gmail.com. Or follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest updates.

Around the Globe

A federal judge has upheld legality of the OPT program, but a group of American tech workers said they would appeal the decision.

Higher-ed groups are asking the Biden administration to formally withdraw a proposed rule that would place strict time limits on student visas.

A pair of senators once again introduced the Dream Act to protect young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

A bad bet on international enrollments contributed to a bankruptcy filing by Canada’s Laurentian University.

Australian universities lost 17,300 jobs and an estimated AUS$1.8 billion in revenue in 2020 because of Covid-19 and the drop in international enrollments.

A judge has ruled that the Rhode Island School of Design failed to provide safe and secure housing to a student who was raped while studying in Ireland, awarding her $2.5 million.

A student was expelled from a study-abroad program in Russia and deported after the University of South Carolina failed to send tuition payments for the student, a veteran who receives education benefits, for more than a year.

The coup in Myanmar could stall the development of the country’s higher-education system, which was just beginning to gain ground after decades of political turmoil.

Five of eight Hong Kong universities may have no elected student unions after candidates opted out of campaigning because of concerns they could run afoul of the new national security law.

Turkish police have detained 160 people at protests over the appointment of a university rector with close ties to the country’s president.

Japan is setting up a massive endowment fund to support scientific research.

Academics will have to get government permission to hold international webinars or online seminars on topics related to India’s security issues or subjects the government considers sensitive.

A new $3.1 million program will support Chinese and American faculty and students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences with opportunities to conduct research, study, or teach abroad in the U.S. or China.

An upcoming virtual event series is looking at the intersection of climate change and racial justice in international education.

Two Polish historians are facing a libel trial for their scholarly work on Polish behavior during World War II, a case that could determine whether independent Holocaust research can continue under the country’s nationalist government.

And finally…

At the beginning of 2020, Heather John Fogarty, a professor of writing and journalism at the University of Southern California, decided to give herself a project, to read at least one book from each of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Fogarty’s idea was rooted in the presidential election — she realized while watching the candidates debate how little she knew about the lived experience of people in other states. Once the lockdown began, though, reading became the way she could journey outside of the confines of her home and across the country.

Some of her picks are new to me; others I might quibble with. (Having read it to the kiddos plenty this summer, I believe there’s no greater book about Maine than One Morning In Maine.) Many I’m anxious to pick up.

What do you think about her picks for your state? What would you recommend? And let’s roam, in our imaginations, even further — what books do you think best capture your favorite places around the globe?

’Til next week — Karin

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