The U.S. Sinophobia Tracker: How America is becoming unfriendly to Chinese students, scientists, and scholars

Foreign Affairs
Illustration by Sebastian Dahlstrom.

Tracking paranoid rhetoric, visa restrictions, and the targeted policing of China-connected research, which combine to create a hostile atmosphere for Chinese people in the U.S.

Updated July 17, 2020

Note: Specifically COVID-19-related sinophobia is not tracked in detail here at this time. Wikipedia has an article on xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic, the Anti-Defamation League has a compilation of Reports of Anti-Asian Assaults, Harassment and Hate Crime, and a group of Harvard grad students has created an interactive map of COVID-19 Racial Aggression. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council is also doing work to track and advocate against COVID-related hate crime in the U.S.


Since early 2018, the American immigration and justice system has appeared to target Chinese students, and ethnically Chinese researchers, with paranoid rhetoric, visa restrictions, and targeted policing and politicization of China-connected research. Together, these three trends comprise the primary — but not only — components of the current atmosphere of suspicion and distrust in America of not just Beijing, but Chinese people as a whole. In other words, sinophobia.

Since early 2019, over a dozen major research universities, and numerous professional associations, have put out statements of concern over the targeting of ethnically Chinese scientists, researchers, and students in the U.S. For example, on June 25, 2019, L. Rafael Reif, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released this statement:

Faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.

More than a year later, in July 2020, L. Rafael Reif and others continued to raise alarm about Chinese students and researchers at universities being targeted by federal government policy. Calling moves that drive Chinese students away “disastrously self-defeating,” Reif warned in the New York Times:

Our competitors openly envy our capacity to welcome and adopt talent from everywhere. I fear lately that we will recognize this strategic U.S. strength only once it is lost.

This article, which we are calling our “Sinophobia Tracker,” shows how those the trends of paranoid rhetoric, visa restrictions, and targeted policing have developed, and also tracks reactions to rising sinophobia. We will regularly update it in the future to include further news.

Click here to read about why SupChina launched this Sinophobia Tracker, in the words of our Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Goldkorn.

Here are the three most recently added articles for each of the four sections of the Sinophobia Tracker:

Paranoid rhetoric about Chinese people in the U.S.

Visa restrictions for Chinese students and others

Targeted policing of China-connected research

Responses to rising sinophobia


Paranoid rhetoric about Chinese people in the U.S.

The current period of sinophobia in America began on February 13, 2018, when FBI director Christopher Wray cast suspicion on every Chinese person in America as a potential spy. The key quote from his comments to a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing is:

One of the things we’re trying to do 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.

Wray later elaborated at an April 2018 event at the Council on Foreign Relations:

No country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China.

China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations. They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China. At the FBI we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our fifty-six field offices, and they span just about every industry or sector.

…Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense. And to be clear, the United States—our country is by no means their only target.

In August 2018, Politico reported comments by President Trump at a private dinner at his New Jersey resort:

At one point during the dinner, Trump noted of an unnamed country that the attendee said was clearly China, “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.”

In April 2019, another senior U.S. official emphasized the racial nature of some of the thinking animating conversation in the American capital. From the Washington Examiner:

“This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before,” Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning at the State Department, said Monday evening at a security forum in Washington, D.C.…

…“The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family,” Skinner said, noting Karl Marx’s indebtedness to Western political ideas. “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

The fact that Skinner herself is black, not Caucasian, was the cause of some amusement for the wags on Twitter, but of no comfort to many Chinese people in the United States who have not forgotten the Chinese Exclusion Act, a racist piece of legislation designed to do what it says, signed into law in 1882 and only repealed in 1943, just one year after the U.S. began forcing innocent Japanese-Americans into internment camps.

On July 16, 2019, Donald Trump repeated, without evidence, an inflammatory insinuation from billionaire investor Peter Thiel about Google committing “treason” by “working with the Chinese government.”

On July 20, 2019, the New York Times reported that “A new Red Scare is reshaping Washington,” citing the increasing influence of the racist and xenophobic views of people like Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, and organizations like the Committee on the Present Danger, a Cold War relic whose revival Bannon has spearheaded.

On July 23, 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray slightly rephrased his earlier remarks, and said of the Chinese espionage threat, “It’s kind of an all-tools approach by them, and it, therefore, requires an all-tools approach by us.”

On July 30, 2019, Marie Royce, a senior U.S. State Department official, made remarks titled “The United States Welcomes Chinese Students.” But Elizabeth Redden at Inside Higher Ed reported that some parts of the remarks were received more as a warning that perpetuated stereotypes of Chinese students.

On August 27, 2019, Senator Lindsey Graham made an incendiary — and hugely popular — statement on Twitter accusing “the Chinese” of cheating, citing no evidence and making no distinction between Chinese people and the Chinese government.

On April 26, 2020, Senator Tom Cotton said, “I have little doubt that the Chinese intelligence services are actively trying to steal America’s intellectual property as it relates to the virus that they unleashed on the world,” and suggested that Chinese students should not be allowed to study science in the U.S. as a result, per the New York Post.

On May 28, 2020, Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn and Representative David Kustoff, also of Tennessee, introduced legislation that would bar Chinese nationals from all STEM graduate-level programs in the U.S., Inside Higher Ed reports.


On July 7, in a speech before the Hudson Institute, a US-based think tank, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that nearly half of the FBI’s 5,000 active counterintelligence cases now relate to China. The FBI director also claimed that China’s efforts to steal American secrets have not slowed during the worldwide pandemic. Wray has long been outspoken in criticizing Chinese efforts to steal American secrets, but these were his most detailed remarks to date.

Visa restrictions and delays

Part of the solution that the American government pursued for the “whole-of-society threat” from Chinese people took the form of visa restrictions for Chinese graduate students and researchers.

Within the White House, in the spring of 2018, immigration advisor Stephen Miller pushed for a complete ban on Chinese students — all 350,000+ of them — in the U.S., the Financial Times reported. Trade advisor Peter Navarro, known for his “Death by China” book and documentary, was also reported to have pushed for a hard stance.

The American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, reportedly convinced Trump to take a less dramatic line. Visa restrictions began in June 2018 for Chinese graduate students in fields like robotics, aviation, and high-tech manufacturing.

“Don’t close the door on Chinese scientists like me,” particle physicist Yangyang Cheng wrote after the first round of visa restrictions was reported:

China is the largest source country of international students and visiting scholars to U.S. universities. Visa restrictions and additional security hurdles on Chinese scientists would cause serious harm to the collaborative nature of scientific research and would be a colossal waste of government resources that could be devoted to investigating actual cases of unlawful behavior with proper due process…

Without being implemented, the suggestion alone of such discriminatory policies casts doubt on every Chinese citizen as a potential agent of the Chinese state, guilty until proved innocent, and inadvertently gives credence to the Chinese government’s own claim that it holds not only control over a territory but also ownership of a people, including its diaspora.

Instead of having racist paranoia turn the Chinese government’s nativist assertions into a self-fulfilling prophecy, the United States must prove the fallacy of such authoritarian delusion by welcoming Chinese immigrants and protecting them from undue pressure by their home government. Chinese scientists in the United States should not be seen as a cash cow for universities, exploited for cheap labor, or suspected as foreign spies. Instead, we deserve dignity, freedom, and equality — the fundamental rights that the Chinese government is too fearful to grant its people.

In early 2019, hundreds of Chinese students have reportedly faced unexplained and highly unusual delays on their student visas. Delays for various kinds of work visas that Chinese people in the U.S. rely on have also reportedly increased.

On June 3, 2019, a Chinese Ministry of Education notice said that Chinese students in the U.S. are facing restrictions and difficulties with visas that are affecting their ability to complete their studies, and warned both students and scholars to be aware of increased risk when going to the U.S. This raised alarm that the U.S. and China may “weaponize talent,” and universities around the country reportedly braced for declining Chinese student enrollments.

On July 22, 2019, the LA Times reported that “UC campuses from San Diego to Berkeley are reporting that Chinese students and scholars are encountering visa delays, federal scrutiny over their research activities, and new restrictions on collaboration with China and Chinese companies.”

On August 26, 2019, the South China Morning Post reported:

It seems the ripple effect of Donald Trump’s trade war with China is now being felt at the upcoming New York Fashion Week, which starts on September 6.

Chinese designer Xiaojuan Yang [aka Yáng Juān 杨娟], founder of independent label I Love Pretty, and her team have been denied visas to travel to the United States next month. According to various reports, Yang applied for a visa at the American Consulate in Guangzhou, China, but the application was turned down and no specific reason was given for the denial.

On August 29, 2019, the president of Arizona State University wrote a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security to express his “serious concern” about the unexplained denial of entry of nine Chinese undergraduate students. See Sixth Tone for more details.

On May 29, 2020, the White House issued a “Proclamation on the suspension of entry as nonimmigrants of certain students and researchers from the People’s Republic of China.” The new policy, first reported by the New York Times, will make graduate study in the U.S. impossible for any Chinese national with even a vague connection to “military-civil fusion” in China. It could affect several thousand students, but universities are still waiting for details from the U.S. State Department.

A July 8 SupChina article details how Chinese students are being affected by the July 6 announcement from the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which warned that if schools move to online-only education, students holding F-1 and M-1 visas “may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” As SupChina explains, the move was part of an effort by the Trump administration to pressure schools to open for in-person classes in the fall. But if implemented, the restrictions will have an outsized impact on Chinese students: Out of more than 1.1 million foreign students holding visas in the U.S. right now, about 370,000 are Chinese, according to Caixin (paywall). On July 9, Harvard and MIT sued the Trump administration in an effort to block the directive.

Targeted policing and politicization of China-connected research

The most recently revealed side of the U.S. government response to what it sees as the “whole-of-society threat” from China is a newfound level of scrutiny of China-connected research.

In May 2019, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, sacked two neuroscientists, Lǐ Xiǎojiāng 李晓江, and his wife, Lǐ Shìhuá 李世华, after they were accused of failing to “fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of his work for research institutions and universities in China.” Li’s lab was dismissed and four researchers working for him, who are Chinese nationals, were ordered to leave the U.S. within 30 days after the lab’s closure. The university’s investigation started back in November 2018 and was prompted by orders from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a U.S. government-affiliated agency responsible for biomedical and public health research. Li and two of the scientists who had worked for him later told their stories to SupChina.

Li told SupChina:

I never thought I was working for a particular country, but for the future of humanity. Maybe I was too caught up in my academic thinking. Maybe I should have taken more political factors into consideration.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on June 13, 2019, that Wú Xīfèng 吴息凤, a naturalized American citizen and “the top-ranked epidemiologist at the nation’s top-ranked cancer center,” MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, was forced out of her research position. The article says that “Wu hasn’t been charged with stealing anyone’s ideas, but in effect she stood accused of secretly aiding and abetting cancer research in China, an un-American activity in today’s political climate.” Three other top Chinese American scientists at MD Anderson have also departed in recent months. The cover of the magazine dubbed this event part of a “new Red Scare.”


A June 25, 2019 article in University World News describes how the addition of dozens of Chinese universities to “entity lists” at the U.S. Commerce Department and other government arms in Washington has threatened to stifle cross-border research collaborations.

A Science Magazine report on June 26, 2019 detailed the growing scrutiny of foreign (read Chinese) scientists in the U.S.:

An aggressive effort by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enforce rules requiring its grantees to report foreign ties is still gathering steam. But it has already had a major impact on the U.S. biomedical research community. A senior NIH official tells ScienceInsider that universities have fired more scientists — and refunded more grant money — as a result of the effort than has been publicly known.

Since August 2018, Bethesda, Maryland–based NIH has sent roughly 180 letters to more than 60 U.S. institutions about individual scientists it believes have broken NIH rules requiring full disclosure of all sources of research funding. To date, the investigation has led to the well-publicized dismissals of five researchers, all Asian Americans, at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Emory University in Atlanta.

But other major U.S. research universities have also fired faculty in cases that have remained confidential, according to Michael Lauer, head of NIH’s extramural research program. And some have repaid NIH “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in grants as a result of rule violations, he says.

On June 28, 2019, NPR reported that the FBI is “encouraging American research universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions, as U.S. suspicion toward China spreads to academia.”

On July 18, 2019, Bloomberg reported that the “U.S. targeting of Chinese scientists fuels a brain drain,” and cited the case of a nanotechnology startup at College of William & Mary that left for China “after federal agents hounded its founder, [Xin Zhao], for two years.” One lawyer told Bloomberg that “Chinese scientists and engineers are often detained and searched at U.S. airports these days while traveling to and from China, as family members watch in panic.”

On August 21, 2019, Bloomberg reported that Franklin Tao (陶丰 Táo Fēng), a “University of Kansas researcher was indicted for allegedly hiding that he was working full-time for a Chinese university at the same time he was doing U.S-funded industrial research.” But as Bloomberg points out, “a web search shows that…his dual Kansas and China ties are disclosed in at least two U.S.-funded research papers published last year, as well as in several Chinese-language websites easily translatable online.” On January 16, 2020, a lawyer representing Tao emphasized, “this case has nothing to do with the Chinese government’s alleged attempts to convert U.S. intellectual property,” and said that Tao would be fighting charges of wire fraud and program fraud.

On August 26, 2019, Cincinnati Public Radio reported that the FBI is “intimidating or harassing” at least three Chinese faculty members at the University of Cincinnati, according to Eric Palmer, the executive director of the local American Association of University Professors chapter.

On November 4, 2019, the New York Times reported about fear in the biomedical research community that ethnically Chinese scientists are being targeted.

On December 10, 2019, Bloomberg reported on how, under the Trump administration, the U.S. government’s distrust of China has “mutated into distrust of Chinese Americans.” They crunched the numbers to show the extent of targeted policing:

From 2000 through 2009, clearance applicants with connections to China—such as family or financial relationships—were denied Pentagon clearances at the same rate as applicants with links to all other countries: 44%. But from 2010 through Oct. 31 this year, the China-related denial rate jumped to 61%, and the rate for all other countries fell to 34%. In other words, more than three-fifths of applicants who have family or other ties to China are rejected for security clearances to work for government contractors, while two-thirds of applicants with ties to other countries are approved.

On March 18, 2020 the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on how the ill-considered, badly executed Trump administration “crackdown on scholars with ties to China has triggered a reverse brain drain.” Specifically, they focus on one researcher, Tán Wèihóng 谭蔚泓, who was hounded out of the U.S. last year, and became the leader of a successful project in China to develop a fast, easy test for COVID-19.

Maggie Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who focuses on criminal justice law in China and Taiwan, argues in a June 2020 draft paper that the US Department of Justice’s ‘China Initiative’ risks undermining the department’s commitment to impartial justice. Lewis writes:

“[U]sing ‘China’ as the glue connecting cases under the Initiative’s umbrella creates an over-inclusive conception of the threat, and attaches a criminal taint to entities that have an even tangential nexus to ‘China.’”

In a May 20 interview with Axios, Lewis explained, “You don’t want to be a Pollyanna and deny that there is a threat,” but  “You want to find the sweet spot. I’m not convinced that the China Initiative is currently doing that.”

According to a July 8 article by the British scientific weekly Nature, several Chinese scientists have reported that they are reluctant to travel to the U.S. for conferences or other research activities due to the US government’s crackdown on foreign interference in science. The report speaks to the consequences of the US DOJ’s ‘China Initiative,’ which aims to counter Chinese national security threats, including economic espionage, cyberattacks and the theft of trade secrets and intellectual property. Critics say the initiative has become counterproductive.
In July of 2019, SupChina spoke to Lǐ Xiǎojiāng 李晓江, a tenured professor at Emory who was fired unceremoniously after Emory launched an investigation into his work with a research lab in China. Dr. Lǐ, who has conducted pioneering research on Huntington’s Disease, was later arrested in the US, but the charges–the theft of federal funds–were eventually dropped. A July 8 SCMP article follows the plight of Lǐ over the last year as his case was settled. In the article, Lǐ details how Emory’s failure to provide complete documentation to the FBI led to his being swept up in the DOJ’s ‘China Initiative.’

Responses to rising sinophobia: Statements of concern over the targeting of ethnically Chinese people

Faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.

—L. Rafael Reif, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 25, 2019

In recent weeks, the Berkeley administration has received several reports of negative comments directed at our Chinese-American faculty, as well as at researchers engaged in collaborations with Chinese companies and institutions, implying without basis that these scholars could be acting as spies or otherwise working at odds with the interests of the United States.

—UC Berkeley administration statement on February 21, 2019

Over the course of 2019, more than a dozen major American research universities have put out statements like these specifically voicing support for Chinese students and scholars, who have widely reported encountering visa difficulties and feeling heightened suspicion from the U.S. government:

More than half a dozen other universities have put out statements not mentioning China, but fairly obviously with U.S.-China tensions in mind, voicing support for the international community on campus:

Two universities based in California, Stanford University and UC Davis, echoed UC Berkeley’s warning that the state’s history shows “an automatic suspicion of people based on their national origin can lead to terrible injustices.”

Other statements of concern, calls to action, and notable op-eds written in response to rising sinophobia in 2019:

On March 8, veteran journalist John Pomfret wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, titled, America’s new — and senseless — Red Scare.

On March 22, Science Magazine published a letter written by 17 Chinese American scientists, titled, Racial profiling harms science.

On April 19, Moss Roberts, a professor of East Asian Studies at New York University, examined the roles of race, religion, politics, and history in U.S. attitudes toward China since 1949 in an Asia Times piece: Rethinking U.S. Sinophobia.

On April 25, United Chinese Americans issued a statement titled, UCA raises concerns for Chinese American scientists as collateral damage.

On June 20, Dominic Ng, chairman and chief executive of East West Bank, wrote in the LA Times that Targeting Chinese students and entrepreneurs in the U.S. is the wrong way to battle Beijing.

On July 23, Peter Mattis and Matt Schrader wrote an essay in War on the Rocks titled, America can’t beat Beijing’s tech theft with racial profiling, calling for an informed approach to U.S. national security worries about China.

On August 5, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, wrote in Inside Higher Ed that “Higher education institutions must work to bolster the security of their research without sacrificing openness and collaboration.”

On August 21, about 150 prominent biomedical scientists and pharmaceutical industry leaders in the U.S. have signed an open letter opposing recent government actions that have created “a climate of fear and uncertainty” amongst Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the biomedical research community.

On August 27, Marc Magnier of the South China Morning Post reported on the new “Red Scare” targeting Chinese-American scientists and scholars, and the organizations, such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice, that are fighting back.

On August 30, Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post titled, No, I won’t start spying on my foreign-born students.

In June 2020, the Trump administration’s move to limit some Chinese graduate students connected to “civil-military fusion,” as well as the proposed legislation to bar all Chinese graduate students in STEM fields, drew outrage. APA Justice called the proposed legislation a “New Chinese Exclusion Act,” and promoted an open letter by OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates dated June 4 that urged President Trump “to rescind his divisive and discriminatory Presidential Proclamation.” The open letter was signed by 162 organizations.

According to a mid-June survey by Marina Yue Zhang of the Swinburne University of Technology, only 40% of students in China who previously intended to study overseas still plan to, while just under 50% of those who had studied overseas plan to return after borders reopen. As Zhang points out, sending children abroad was once a “privilege” for elite Chinese families. Now, due to growing tensions between China and the West, “middle-class parents in China had become increasingly concerned about the safety of, and possible discrimination against, their children abroad, including in the U.S. and Australia.”

On July 1, Catherine X. Pan-Giordano spoke with SupChina to discuss how the DOJ’s “‘China Initiative”’ impacts Chinese-American scientists and researchers. Pan-Giordano, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP, argues that the ‘China Initiative’ has had a “chilling effect” on scientific collaboration and often penalized individual scientists and faculty members for failing to understand “complicated and sometimes confusing” disclosure rules. In her interview, she offers concrete recommendations for those who fear being targeted by the “‘China Initiative.”’

On July 14, 2020, L. Rafael Reif, the President of the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in the New York Times that “The international scholars the administration was threatening to send home are vital to American innovation and competitiveness.”