When Chen Siyu met a consular official at the U.S. embassy in Beijing in March to review her qualifications for a student visa, “Everything was going well,” she says—or so it seemed. Chen, who has a master’s in public health from the University of Hong Kong, had won a fully funded slot in an epidemiology Ph.D. program at the University of Florida. When the consular officer asked about her current employment, Chen explained that she had worked as an epidemiology research assistant at a major hospital for 5 years. She mentioned that the hospital is affiliated with a military medical university.
The consular officer thanked Chen for the information and moments later handed her a rejection form letter with “Other: 212(f)” ticked off from among a selection of reasons. The interview was over, as were her dreams of earning a Ph.D. in the United States.
Chen is one of a growing group of Chinese students barred from the United States based on 212(f), a clause in the decades-old Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that allows the U.S. president to identify aliens whose entry would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” In May 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed a proclamation that invoked the clause to bar Chinese graduate students and postgraduate researchers with ties to an entity in China “that implements or supports China’s ‘military-civil fusion strategy.’” The proclamation exempts those working in fields that don’t contribute to that strategy—but apparently epidemiology is not among them.
Now, Chen is one of 2500 activists—Chinese students with visa problems and their supporters—who are fighting back against what they see as an arbitrary and discriminatory policy. Armed with a website and a Twitter account, the students have written to more than 50 top U.S. research universities to focus attention on their plight. They are getting a sympathetic hearing in the U.S. academic world: A 10 June letter from the American Council on Education to the Department of State warned of “delays in students’ academic careers and critical projects.”
The group is also discussing legal action with a U.S. immigration lawyer and recently launched a fundraising campaign to hopefully cover the costs. “We think this is a policy of discrimination based on nationality,” says Hu Desheng, a doctoral candidate in computer science at Northeastern University who got stuck in China because of pandemic-related travel restrictions in early 2020, and whose visa application is now backlogged.
Trump’s proclamation initially had little impact because the pandemic disrupted academic plans globally. But after more than a year, the U.S. embassy and consulates in China resumed processing routine visa applications on 4 May. Between then and mid-June, more than 500 visa applications have been rejected, according to the students’ tally. It was reported in September 2020 that more than 1000 Chinese scholars already in the United States had their visas revoked. Many others hesitate to leave the United States, fearing they won’t get back in.
How many students will be affected annually is unclear, in part because the U.S. government has not said which Chinese entities are deemed to be supporting the military-civil fusion strategy and which fields of study are considered sensitive or exempt.
A study of the measure’s potential impact published in February by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) assumed the designated entities include 11 universities subject to stringent export control restrictions by the U.S. Department of Commerce, including the so-called Seven Sons of National Defence—schools with historical ties to China’s defense establishment. The study also assumed the “critical and emerging technologies” mentioned in the proclamation will cover all areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). If so, the proclamation could block 3000 to 5000 of the roughly 19,000 Chinese students who start graduate programs each year, CSET estimated. The report did not cover postdoctoral and visiting researchers, graduates of other universities, or those in non-STEM fields. (The proclamation exempts undergraduate students from scrutiny.)
We think this is a policy of discrimination based on nationality.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department declined to name which institutions are blacklisted, but said the sensitive technologies include quantum computing, big data, semiconductors, biotechnology, 5G, advanced nuclear technology, aerospace technology, and artificial intelligence. “By design, the policy is narrowly targeted,” the spokesperson says.
But the Chinese students say rejections are broad. Even those intending to study finance, obstetrics and gynecology, water conservation, medicine, agronomy, and other seemingly nonmilitary topics have had visas rejected under clause 212(f), they say. Li Xiang, for example, earned a masters in linguistics from the Harbin Institute of Technology, one of the schools with historical defense ties, then studied at an art school to prepare for a master’s program in game development at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. “To be an artist in the game and film industry is my dream,” she says. Her application was rejected and she was told she is not even eligible for a visa to visit her husband, who is working in the United States. The visa of another student, Xue Shilue, was revoked in the summer of 2020 after she had completed the first year of a master’s program in “user experience design” at the University of Texas, Austin. She happened to be in China at the time and can’t go back to complete her degree or even collect her personal belongings.
The proclamation also appears to target students supported by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), which falls under China’s Ministry of Education but has been under scrutiny for supposed links to the defense establishment, according to a separate CSET study. Blacklisting CSC could have dramatic implications. CSET estimates that during the 2017–18 academic year, the council supported 26,000 Chinese scholars in all disciplines in the United States. Huang Yunan, who last year started a Ph.D. program in food science at Cornell University remotely because of the pandemic, was denied a visa after telling a consular officer about her CSC support during a May interview. More than 100 of some 500 CSC-supported members of a chat group she belongs to have recently had visa applications rejected, she says.
The students object to the absence of any individual assessment. “There is a presumption of guilt on the part of every Chinese student who has studied at a targeted university,” Hu says. As to the Seven Sons, “We go to those schools because they are top-ranked universities,” Hu says, not because of their military ties.
Cornell Vice Provost for International Affairs Wendy Wolford asked U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a 26 May letter to rectify the “capricious, unclear, and excessive” interpretations of the proclamation that are “creating tremendous uncertainty and confusion for international students and their U.S. universities.” (Wolford did not respond to an email asking whether she had heard back from Blinken.)
Meanwhile, a lawsuit is a long shot, says Charles Kuck, a U.S. immigration lawyer who has advised the students. “The Supreme Court has given a literal carte blanche to the president to use INA 212(f), along with a ‘reasonable’ explanation, for whatever entry ban the president wants to put into place,” Kuck says.
The problems are driving some students to pursue advanced degrees elsewhere; Chen, for one, will now get her Ph.D. at the University of Hong Kong. Moves like hers should be a bigger worry than the possibility that graduate students are stealing U.S. technology, says Denis Simon, an expert in innovation who studies China’s research efforts at Duke University. “The notion of there being a conspiratorial effort [to acquire advanced technology] is just far beyond the reality.” In contrast, he says, slowing the flow of Chinese students will harm the United States, where they help sustain many research programs. “It’s a pipeline that has been built over 40 years, and by deconstructing it, we will do some very serious damage to our ability to have the kind of talent needed to drive our innovation system forward.”