U.S. kicks out 1,000 Chinese students for alleged ties to ‘military-civil fusion’

Foreign Affairs

The Trump administration says that it has cancelled more than 1,000 visas of Chinese students since a May 29 proclamation that put graduate students connected to China’s “military-civil fusion” in the crosshairs.

middle school connected to the northwestern polytechnic university in china
A flag-raising ceremony at the middle school attached to Northwestern Polytechnic School in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. Several Chinese undergraduate students in the U.S. who had their visas cancelled said they had previously attended this middle school. Photo via Baidu.

On May 29, 2020, the White House issued a proclamation that made clear the following: Any Chinese graduate student in the U.S. with even a vague connection to “military-civil fusion” in China was at risk of losing their visa.

What was less clear is how many students might end up being affected — one official estimate was “at least 3,000” of the approximately 360,000 Chinese students in the country — or whether the Trump administration would ever make transparent its criteria for determining whether or not a Chinese student was too close to the military for comfort.

  • Universities at the time were “deeply concerned that the order could lead to vast overreach, wrongly shutting out students whose work is non-military, openly published and critical to American research efforts in fields ranging from climate change to energy storage,” the LA Times reported.

Today, an update: Over 1,000 visas have been canceled as of September 8, a U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed to Reuters.

  • The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said in a speech that the Trump administration was “blocking visas for certain Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to China’s military fusion strategy to prevent them from stealing and otherwise appropriating sensitive research,” but did not elaborate further.

Which students have been affected?

The affected students seem to have mostly been studying math- and science-related subjects, according to a WeChat group conversation of 70 students cited by Reuters. However, the visa cancellations do not appear to have been limited to graduate students — one affected student identified himself to Reuters as a “final-year undergraduate student of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”

As of this writing, 55 affected students appear to have anonymously added information of their cases to a QQ spreadsheet (in Chinese). That spreadsheet confirms the Reuters report and adds more information:

  • Some are undergraduate students, who either transferred to the U.S. in the middle of their studies or never attended a university in China. Four say that they attended a secondary school attached to Northwestern Polytechnical University in China.
  • Others graduated from military-affiliated universities in China, including the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Beihang University, Beijing Institute of Technology, Harbin Institute of Technology, Tianjin University of Technology, the Northwestern Polytechnical University, and Harbin Engineering University.

What happens next?

China could retaliate with visa cancellations of its own, just as it continues to do in response to every restriction on Chinese journalists in the U.S. The Chinese foreign ministry today condemned the student visa cancellations as an act of “outright political persecution and racial discrimination,” and said, “China reserves the right to make further reaction” (English, Chinese).

More importantly, Chinese students are losing faith in the openness of the American political and academic system, and this move — amplified by its opacity — will accelerate that process. As Bloomberg points out, “Regular visa services at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the U.S. consulates in mainland China have been suspended since February 3 due to the coronavirus outbreak,” and the Trump administration has not communicated when they might resume normal service.

As Dennis E. Yi reported for SupChina last month:

Many are hurt by Trump’s overtures — however symbolic — about Chinese talent having no place in his vision of America. Together with the mass cancellation of Chinese work visas last month, the Trump administration has effectively pushed many future talents back into the arms of the CCP.

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