A bad idea on students from China

A bad idea on students from China
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Dov Zakheim has a well deserved reputation for his vast national security expertise, but his recent editorial that proposes a policy to replace some 300,000 Chinese students in the United States with American students on federal scholarships really missed the mark. There is certainly a strong case to be made for more support for science and math in the American system because they are critical pillars of our strategic competition with Beijing. But pushing out Chinese students from the American education system would be destructive and hand a victory to Beijing.

Americans support educational exchange with China. In a broad survey last year, educational exchange was ranked in the top three areas where people thought the United States should be working with China, together with climate change and global health, even as the public supports a firm stance on human rights and security against Beijing. While governors and university presidents would be happy to receive more federal funding for scholarships, they will not get behind any plan to halt the flow of foreign students, Chinese or otherwise, to their states and colleges.

Moreover, banning Chinese students would cast the strategic competition with China as a racially motivated action. The murder of six Asian women in Atlanta and statistics showing a marked increase in hate crimes against Asian American citizens in the wake of the cornavirus crisis have already provided grist for the propaganda mill in Beijing. Even worse is that these developments are raising doubts among our close allies in Asia about the status of their own emigrants who go to the United States.


We know from history that racially motivated exclusion laws, such as the banning of the Japanese American citizens from the American education system during the 1920s, have harmed the standing of the United States in Asia and undercut our security. Banning an entire group of citizens from Asia would not only light a match under our relations with China, it would also outrage several of our close allies around the region.

The majority of Chinese students in the United States are here precisely because they want the benefits of an open education system denied to them back home. In Chinese universities, the Communist Party is putting cameras in the classroom and scolding or firing professors who advocate liberal ideas and human rights. So why would the United States want to consign this entire generation of future Chinese leaders to an education system that vilifies our values instead of granting an opportunity for them to learn those democratic values in American institutions?

Furthermore, if China is going to have a greater impact on the lives of Americans than any other country in the world, Americans should have the opportunity to hear the views of Chinese students in the classroom. Banning Chinese students from our universities could easily prompt a retaliation from Beijing that denies tens of thousands of Americans the opportunity to learn Mandarin and study abroad in China.

The technology edge of the United States is led by innovation but also by immigration. While some technology trickles from our architecture, there are far more contributions to the advancement of American society and competition from students who are in our labs from abroad. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, chaired by former Google executive Eric Schmidt and vice chaired by former deputy secretary of defense Robert Work, concluded that closing off Chinese immigration to the United States would prove a net benefit for Beijing in the competition for dominance with the future of artificial intelligence.

There are certainly problems, such as the cases of targeted technology espionage in American labs under the Thousand Talents plan of Beijing. The Communist Party has an arm that tries to organize Chinese students to use propaganda against those on American campuses who advocate democracy for Hong Kong or condemn human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang. American academics who are critical of China are also denied visas and the ability to conduct research in the country.

These problems need targeted solutions that maintain the vital strengths of our open society. These solutions might include limited access to labs funded by our government or industry in American universities, scrutiny of Confucius Institutes, or transparency rules for the Chinese Scholars and Students Association. But if we are really worried about competition with China, we should be playing to our strengths and not acting like we are the kind of closed system championed by Xi Jinping.

Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the director of Asian Studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.