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Increasing number of Chinese researchers leaving the US out of fear, study says

A new study suggests the number of Chinese researchers relocating to China from the United States is increasing despite the end of the controversial China Initiative earlier this year.

The Asian American Scholar Forum (AASF) published a report titled “Caught in the Crossfire: Fears of Chinese-American Scientists” on Sept. 3.

In its study, the association presented the results of its national academic climate survey, showing that the number of Chinese researchers leaving the U.S. has grown since the U.S. Department of Justice launched its China Initiative in 2018.

There has been a significant increase of Chinese-origin scientists returning to China in recent years despite them wanting to contribute to science and research in the United States,” Xihong Lin, AASF board member and co-chair of the association’s Data and Research Committee, said.

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The fear among Chinese-origin scientists is palpable and the U.S. runs a high risk of losing talent,” Lin continued. “We want to use our research to raise awareness of these concerns and continue the long history of the U.S. benefiting from attracting and retaining the best and brightest scientists and engineers from around the world.”

In collaboration with 11 Asian American organizations, AASF surveyed over 1,300 Chinese-born faculty members across the country between December 2021 and March 2022. Around 89% of respondents said they “would like to contribute to the U.S. leadership in science and technology.”

However, of the survey's more than 1,300 respondents, around 61% said they feel pressured to leave the country. Around 47% of them said they would like to relocate to Asia, while 46% of them mentioned relocating to non-Asian countries.

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The study also revealed the uneasiness Chinese researchers felt: 72% said they “do not feel safe as an academic researcher,” 42% said they are "fearful of conducting research" in the U.S. and 65% are "worried about collaborations with China."

The report linked the growing exodus of Chinese researchers to the China Initiative, a security program launched in 2018 under the Trump administration. Although the program was stopped earlier this year in February by the Biden administration, many researchers have still decided to leave the U.S.

It is clear from our research that the impact of the chilling effect from the ‘China Initiative’ is far from over,” Yu Xie, co-chair of AASF’s Data and Research Committee, said. “We must address the fears of scientists of Asian origin so that we can make the academic environment welcoming and continue the global competitiveness and U.S. leadership in science and technology for future generations to come.”

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In the report, one respondent explained that the country's “anti-Chinese atmosphere” drove him to quit his academic position.

What I have experienced at my former institution was not only disgusting, but a system corruption that I believe [is] illegal,” the respondent, a self-described U.S. citizen and a former recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, said.

I had never thought of somewhere in this county to be dark and corrupted like this. If I had, I would not have become a naturalized U.S. citizen, which I regret now. What I experienced not [only] ruined my academic career, but also destroyed my American dream.”

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Some scholars think that there are other factors to consider besides the China Initiative that could be causing the exodus of Chinese researchers, including the closure of several Confucius Institutes across the U.S.

I have a problem with the attempts, largely by innuendo, to link Chinese movements back to the mainland to the China Initiative,” Robert Heineman, a retired political science professor at Alfred University in New York, said.

The number of graduate students coming to the U.S. from China has also reportedly dropped significantly. The Council of Graduate Schools reported that from fall 2020 to fall 2021, the number of applicants from China dropped by 16%, while graduate program applicants from India rose by 36%.

 

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