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Banning Chinese Nationals Takes Cold War to Extremes

Noah Smith

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With tensions between the U.S. and China heating up, there are increasing calls for expelling or barring Chinese nationals from U.S. universities and corporations. Whatever the national security justification for these moves, policy makers should be aware of the potential downsides -- loss of economic vitality, and the potential for a wave of racial discrimination.  

Over the past few years, U.S. public opinion of China has soured dramatically, accelerating a trend that began with the accession of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2012. The trend is bipartisan and holds across age groups. The reasons for it are varied and manifold.

Many Americans blame China for failing to contain the initial Covid-19 outbreak, while long-simmering touchpoints such as job competition, industrial espionage, trade disparities, and environmental concerns are also coming back to the fore. On top of these things, there’s the actions of the Chinese government itself: The assumption of control in Hong Kong and the repression of the Uighur minority have reached many American ears. And China’s maritime expansionism and clashes with neighbors such as India provide uncomfortable parallels to aggressive rising powers of the past.

In this climate, perhaps it’s no surprise to see growing suspicion of Chinese nationals working or studying in the U.S. This summer, President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending visas for many Chinese graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, and urged the State Department to consider revoking existing visas. Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn would go further, introducing a bill that would ban Chinese nationals from studying STEM subjects such as math and engineering at the graduate level in the U.S.

Chinese workers, too, are feeling the heat. Under long-standing U.S. government rules, hiring foreign workers in certain high-tech industries is considered an export, since those workers could then move back home and take back the technological knowledge they learned in America. In recent years, as the trade war with China has heated up, the government has become much more willing to deny companies approval to hire Chinese nationals. Meanwhile, a number of universities have expelled professors with ties to certain Chinese government organizations.

Some of these moves doubtless have national security justifications. China has been found to conduct espionage at U.S. universities and companies, attempting to nab the latest U.S. technologies cheaply. As security competition between the two countries intensifies, it makes sense to intensify U.S. efforts to keep sensitive technologies secret -- both to preserve a military edge, and to retain U.S. companies’ competitive advantage so that the country doesn’t become too reliant on Chinese national champions such as Huawei Corp.

Banning Chinese graduate students and researchers en masse, though, is a blanket move -- an extreme response to the espionage problem. It’s possible that this sort of nuclear option is the only way to avoid critical security lapses, but it may constitute an overreaction by an administration that has already shown a tendency toward xenophobia and poor policy judgment in many other areas. When considering whether these policies make sense, it’s thus important to also consider the economic and social costs.

Some of those costs will fall on the U.S.

One cost will be weakened U.S. research capabilities. In many STEM fields, foreign students -- of whom Chinese students are a large portion -- are absolutely essential:

The U.S. wouldn’t be able to replace these students quickly. The closest substitute would be foreign students and researchers from other countries, but even if this were possible in the age of Trump and Covid-19, switching to new personnel would entail the loss of months or even years of experience and knowledge. Inducing native-born students to fill these fields in large numbers would be an even slower and more costly process. A mass expulsion of Chinese students would thus hamper STEM research efforts at a large number of university research labs, as well as the companies with whom those labs partner.

That, along with the expulsion of Chinese workers, could cause the U.S. to stumble in some critical fields such as artificial intelligence. It also would hurt college towns, which lure corporate investment by having a large pool of research workers, and who are key drivers of economic investment and prosperity in otherwise declining regions.

In addition to the economic costs, there’s also the danger of sparking a racist backlash against not just Chinese nationals, but also Asian Americans. Reports of anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment have already soared, due to antipathy toward China over the coronavirus. A nationwide campaign to expel Chinese students or workers could exacerbate the problem. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush went out of his way to stress that the U.S. was not in a civilizational conflict with Islam; this may have helped to tamp down the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that bubbled up. The Trump administration is unlikely to display the same foresight.

It’s very difficult to weigh potential economic losses and social dangers against the imperatives of national security. But U.S. policy makers need to understand the trade-offs involved.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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