Harassing Chinese students an embarrassment for America
Published: Feb 22, 2024 03:10 PM
Chinese students. Photo: cnsphoto

Chinese students. Photo: cnsphoto

Wang Xiaohong, China's State Councilor and Minister of Public Security, has turned his attention to Chinese students studying in the US. On Sunday, he sent a clear message to US officials during a meeting in Austria: You must ensure those students no longer face harassment when they arrive in the US.

That message is one that higher education officials across the US would also be wise to remember, a point I will return to below.

First, the background to the story. China's ire was justifiably raised in late January, when Chinese students arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport were detained despite having the necessary documentation to ease through customs and immigration screenings. Many of those students, who were entering the US to continue studying at one of its colleges and universities, received hours-long questioning about their backgrounds and scholarly interests. 

Inexplicably, American officials also demanded to know any information the students had about the Chinese government. The students' answers were obviously not sufficient in the minds of the security personnel because those officials soon compounded their unprofessional behavior by denying some of the students' entry into the country and sending them home. The students were told it would be years before they would again be given an entry visa.

There is no nice way to say this: What happened to those students is an embarrassment to the US. Those of us in higher education who believe that international exchanges with students from countries from all over the world advance a global community of shared future should be especially angry. You may count me among those who are mad.

Xie Feng, China's ambassador to the US, had demanded to know why students with "valid visas" and "no criminal record" could not return to their universities "after traveling elsewhere or reuniting with their family in China." In a remarkable demonstration of ignorance or arrogance, the Department of Justice offered no reply at the time. 

One can hope that open-minded officials in the appropriate US government offices will stand up loudly and say "no more." Then again, President Joe Biden should have made a public statement indicating his disgust about what took place. As the cliche goes, do not hold your breath; one should not expect the president to say anything that comes anywhere near an apology.

Remember, President Biden joined with Chinese President Xi Jinping late last year in promising to advance programs that would lead to more international exchanges, especially among the youth of both nations. President Xi was especially forthright by calling for 50,000 US students to come to China over the next five years. 

The total number of Chinese students in the US will fluctuate from year to year; however, they remain a large international cohort on America's college campuses. Because of their international status, they pay the highest tuition rates, which provide important income to their schools. They also contribute to the overall American economy.

Do the students enjoy their time in the US? Do they feel safe? Choosing to stay in the country after graduation is one way to answer those questions. And the warning sirens should be sounding in American cities big and small, and on college campuses big and small: Roughly half of those students recently reported fearing for their safety because of the increase in hate directed toward Asians, and more than half of the students chose to return to China. 

These reports should also be described as an embarrassment to the US. A country that prides itself on the idea that it is open and welcoming to people from all over the world most definitely is not showing that. Parents across China are well aware that their sons and daughters may face racist taunts, or worse, in the US. They and their children are therefore reconsidering whether America is the right place.

How terribly sad. 

One American academic recently wrote an editorial for The Hill. In it, Rory Truex, an associate professor at Princeton University, detailed the failings of the China Initiative, a terribly flawed effort initiated by Donald Trump to uncover Chinese scientists who were secretly working for China. The biggest name caught in this web of nonsense? An American scientist who lied to government officials about his connections to Chinese universities and who filed false tax returns. 

Prof. Truex concluded with this important statement: "Unless we change the narrative and treat Chinese students and scientists with respect, America will simply be pushing them away, harming our own interests and accelerating China's scientific development."

Detaining Chinese students who have approval to study in the US is bad policy. Detaining Chinese scientists who are working all over the US is bad policy. Derailing efforts to bring the brightest minds to the US is bad policy.

The time to stop all of this is now.

The author is an associate professor at the Department of Communication and Organizational Leadership at Pennsylvania-based Robert Morris University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn