Ethnic Chinese scientists fear heavy US surveillance

After years of crackdown on Chinese-born scholars, US universities in danger of losing critical base of students and workers, University of Arizona-led survey finds

October 29, 2021
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Most scientists of Chinese descent in the US fear that they are under ongoing US government surveillance, even as nearly all their non-Chinese colleagues value their research and teaching, a nationwide survey has found.

The survey by University of Arizona researchers and a Chinese-American community leadership association also found that ethnic Chinese scientists were significantly more likely to deliberately avoid seeking federal funding for fear of attracting even greater scrutiny and of having their bid rejected.

Yet the survey, covering nearly 2,000 academic scientists in the US, also found that nearly three-quarters of those of non-Chinese descent agreed that the US government should be tougher on China to prevent the theft of intellectual property – nearly twice the rate of their ethnic Chinese counterparts.

Altogether, said a lead author, Jenny Lee, a professor of educational policy studies and practice at Arizona, the findings reflected a segment of the US academic community that is highly valued yet under heavy stress from years of a Trump administration crackdown on people of Chinese heritage.

“What is clear from this research is that US scientists and researchers of Chinese descent and non-Chinese descent experience the world and their work very differently because of racism, stereotypes, xenophobia and government policies,” Professor Lee said.

Less clear, however, was where to lay blame and seek solutions. The study sponsors arranged presentations from top academics and experts who largely castigated the federal government for using the weight of criminal prosecutions to achieve political ends.

They included Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the president of Stanford University, who noted that his institution hosts more 1,000 students and scholars from China. He said he was “alarmed that Chinese and Chinese-American scholars and students report feeling increased pressure and scrutiny of their academic pursuits, much of it triggered by policies in Washington”.

Yet Peter Zeidenberg, a defence attorney and former federal prosecutor, said some ethnic Chinese scholars were being persecuted and arrested over paperwork violations because their institutions had failed to provide the necessary training.

“They never want to say that, because then they look like they’ve fallen short,” Mr Zeidenberg said of such universities. “Rather than standing behind their professors, they point their finger at them.”

The Arizona survey team, working with the community group Committee of 100, received responses from 1,949 faculty, postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students at 83 leading US universities. They compiled the responses between May and July, just as Anming Hu, a former associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee, became the first academic caught up in the Trump-initiated crackdown to face trial.

Dr Hu was among at least 16 academic scientists arrested under the initiative, with charges largely involving allegations that they failed in routine paperwork to fully disclose activities involving foreign partners. US university leaders have backed the need to guard against espionage, but have questioned the degree of prosecutorial effort given that academics routinely share their findings and rely heavily on international cooperation.

The matter is critical to US universities and many industries that rely on scientific and technical expertise because Chinese scholars account for about a third of US international students, by far the single largest share. They typically pay full tuition charges and fees, and they account for substantial shares of low-paid teaching staff in scientific fields.

Yet as many as 1,000 scientists have fled the US during the crackdown. The Arizona-led survey found that 42 per cent of the scientists of Chinese descent indicated that the federal crackdown had affected their plans to stay in the US. And among undergraduate students, data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that international enrolment fell by 8 per cent this autumn semester, after dropping by 14 per cent a year earlier.

Dr Hu was acquitted last month when a federal judge concluded that he was caught in a confusing set of procedural rules regarding his own work in China and had made no definitive attempt to deceive the government over the matter. Tennessee later agreed to rehire Dr Hu, but he has been negotiating for back pay and help in restoring his visa, which was cancelled after his arrest. The academic is a naturalised Canadian citizen.

In the Arizona-led survey, 97 per cent of scientists of Chinese descent and 94 per cent of other scientists agreed that ethnic Chinese scholars made important contributions to research and teaching programmes in the US. Among the scientists of Chinese descent, 51 per cent said they felt considerable fear or anxiety that they were under US government surveillance, 42 per cent felt they had been racially profiled, and 38 per cent believed that their origin made it harder for them to obtain research funding.

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Reader's comments (1)

IP theft is a big enough issue as it is, when it also affects national security then it's not unreasonable to expect to be 'monitored', the reach of the CCP, it's enforcers and infiltrators should not be underestimated, especially when the use the threat to the families of academics still in China to gain compliance.