Guilt by educational association?

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Calls to rescind an executive order that denies visas to students who studied at universities affiliated with the Chinese military. Plus, consular services restart in India and a mistrial in a case on research and espionage.


‘A Presumption of Guilt’

As visa processing ramps back up, tens of thousands of students in China hope to get their travel documents approved before the new semester begins.

But one group of students may not be included — those who did their undergraduate study at universities that have affiliations with the Chinese military.

Some 3,000 to 5,000 students, largely graduate students in STEM programs, may be affected by the policy put in place a year ago by the Trump administration.

Now, they are pushing back, lobbying to have the policy revoked and considering legal action. They say that the measure, formally known as Presidential Proclamation 10043, discriminates against students because of school choices made years ago, not because of any proof that the students themselves pose a national-security threat. Students who receive funding from the China Scholarship Council also could be singled out.

I spoke with several of the students who have organized to oppose the proclamation. As an example of the arbitrary nature of the enforcement, they shared the story of a doctoral student’s recent visa interview. It appeared to go smoothly, with questions about the student’s major, computer science, and source of funding; the consular official even reminded the student of the requirement to take a Covid-19 test before he flew to the U.S. But then at the last minute, the officer asked where the student earned his bachelor’s degree. When the student named one of the blacklisted universities — although the official list has never been made public — his application was suddenly rejected.

“There is a presumption of guilt based on where we go to school,” said Dennis Hu, one of the organizers. “As long as we study in those universities, we are guilty.”

Hu himself has been affected by the policy. A Ph.D. student at private university in New England, he returned to China to renew his visa last January and found himself stranded there, first by the pandemic and now by Proclamation 10043. “I don’t want to quit and give up my program,” he told me.

Opponents of the measure had hoped that President Biden would repeal the presidential order when he took office. That it remains in place is a reminder of the bipartisan suspicion of China, and not just in Washington — 55 percent of Americans favor restrictions on Chinese students.

It also underscores the extent to which higher education continues to be caught up in geopolitical tensions. I’ll have more next week on how universities try to navigate these ever-roiling seas.

More than 40 higher-ed groups wrote to the U.S. Department of State expressing concern about the use of Proclamation 10043 in visa denials. “Now that consulates are starting to reopen in China, and international students are beginning to see visa processing resume, we have heard troubling reports of this proclamation being applied very broadly,” they wrote. 

The associations ask State Department officials for a briefing on the “implications” of the order, but they stop short of calling for its revocation — to the frustration of the Chinese students. The students have been conducting a letter-writing campaign to American universities asking them to lobby the federal government to have the proclamation rescinded and to offer legal help to students whose visas are rejected. The affected students are also raising money to retain a lawyer to mount a legal challenge.

While the students directly affected make up just a small portion of the more than 372,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S., Hu told me that he worries about the ripple effects of the policy, potentially marginalizing Chinese students and scholars and feeding into anti-Asian discrimination. Already, some students have given up on their dreams of studying in America — and still more might never apply.

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India Restarts Student-Visa Services

Meanwhile, after a Covid-dealt setback, U.S. consulates in India re-opened student-visa appointments last week.

As State Department posts resume services after stopping almost all visa processing amid countrywide wave of outbreaks, students will be first in line, said Don Heflin, head of consular services in India, during a Facebook Live.

Appointments will start on July 1, and State Department officials are prepared for an “intensive” two months of student interviews, Heflin said. They are committed to processing as many students as they did in summer 2019, prior to the pandemic. Only China sends more students to the U.S. than India.

The bulk of visa appointments became available last week, but consular officials planned to hold about 25 percent in reserve as demand and staffing shift.

Some students and counselors reported progress in scheduling appointments, but also continued anxiety. “Scheduling appointments has been a challenge,” Charu Malhotra, a college advisor in Noida told me. “The embassy has definitely been working to hasten the process, but the numbers are high and so is the stress level.”

Malhotra said some families are also upset that parents won’t be permitted to travel to the U.S. to help their children settle in because of Covid-related travel bans. (Students beginning classes after August 1 are exempt from travel restrictions.)

There’s also been grumbling from students who had May appointments canceled when consular services were suspended. They had to reapply for interview slots, something that Heflin attributed to technical limitations of the appointment system. Others complain that they were only able to secure appointments days before their program start date, putting them at risk of missing the first few days of classes.

And some students expressed frustration at technical glitches and crashes with the overloaded appointment website. Heflin warned frustrated students against repeatedly refreshing the site — doing so could lock them out of their accounts for 48 hours or more.

Mistrial Declared in China-Ties Case

A federal judge declared a mistrial after a jury couldn’t reach a verdict in the case of a former University of Tennessee professor accused of hiding his ties to China.

Anming Hu was the first defendant to go to trial as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative. After deliberating for more than a day, the jury said on Wednesday that it was deadlocked on the charges against him, of wire fraud and making false statements.

Prosecutors had alleged that Hu hid his work at a Beijing university from Tennessee and from federal officials as part of NASA grants. His defense lawyer called the conflict of interest forms confusing and said Hu didn’t think he had to declare his part-time work in China. FBI agents lacked evidence of espionage.

In a call with reporters, Phil Lomonaco, Hu’s attorney, said his client was simply doing his job, working with scientists in China and around the world.  

“Just the kind of work Professor Hu did made him low-hanging fruit” as a target for the China Initiative, Lomonaco said.

The big question: What impact, if any, will Hu’s mistrial have on further prosecutions of researchers as part of the China Initiative. The Trump-era effort was supposed to block Chinese theft of trade secrets and cutting-edge research, but like Hu, most of the other dozen scientists face charges of fraud and disclosure, not espionage. That’s led observers to worry that Sino-American tensions have led to the “criminalization of research-compliance failures.” 

Prosecutors have not said whether they will seek to retry Hu. The judge could also rule to acquit the professor. 

Let’s keep in touch. Email me with story ideas and feedback. For updates between newsletters, find me on Twitter or Linkedin.

Around the Globe

The U.S. government is urging a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the legality of Optional Practical Training, the work program for international graduates, saying there’s no evidence foreign students take jobs from American workers. 

Saudi Arabia has helped citizens charged with serious crimes flee the U.S., including a number of college students.

A Business Insider investigation alleges that some California colleges gave preferential treatment to students from a Chinese high school.

Almost half of H-1B registrants this year had advanced degrees from American colleges.

“We need to take every step possible to provide deserving young people with some degree of protection and continued opportunity to work and support their families.” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote in an op-ed on the ninth anniversary of DACA.

Covid may have led some companies to pivot away from work advising students about overseas study, at least in China.

At their summit in England, G7 leaders signed a research compact committing to global research collaboration and to develop common principles and practices for research integrity and security.

European research universities are calling for the creation of an ombudsperson within the EU to protect academic freedom.

The Forum on Education Abroad has joined the University Global Coalition, a global platform of universities and higher-ed groups committed to working with the UN in support of Sustainable Development Goals.

India is narrowing the educational gender gap, as more women go to college.

The World Bank has approved $60 million in spending to strengthen higher ed in Nepal.

A Canadian Ph.D. student arrested during anti-government protests has been released from a Turkish prison.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for the “correct view” on the study of history ahead of the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Danish parliament passed a resolution condemning “excessive activism” in certain academic fields.

French authorities have dropped a rape allegation against prominent intellectual and former head of Sciences Po governing board. 

Join me at the 2021 connectED gathering, a free two-day event for high-school counselors and university reps. I’ll be speaking at noon ET on Wednesday. Find out more and register here.

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And finally…

You may have been following along with coverage of a gargantuan bill meant to make the U.S. more competitive in research and technology with China. Now The Onion has its, er, take. The satirical newspaper “reports” that America will invest in raising its own pandas in order to counter Chinese influence. 

“If we continue to rely on China for these highly sought-after bears, we may one day wake up and discover we no longer have an adequate supply of giant pandas,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, promising to develop pandas that are arger, cuter, and can consume bamboo at twice the rate of their Chinese counterparts.

Which, if you’ve spent any time watching the National Zoo’s panda cam, you’ll know is a tall order.

’Til next week —Karin

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