The Chinese Communist Party has accomplished something rare in U.S. politics these days: uniting Democrats and Republicans around a common enemy. Unfortunately, frenzied concern about Chinese influence threatens America’s ability to attract the top talent it needs to maintain global leadership in science and higher education.
The damage caused by the Department of Justice’s now-disbanded China Initiative still reverberates. Designed to counter economic espionage and national security threats from China, it resulted — in some cases — in researchers and academics of Chinese descent being placed under house arrest or taken away in handcuffs on charges of hiding ties to China, cases that ended in acquittal or were later dropped.
The program resulted in few prosecutions before being shut down last year. But it upended lives and careers, and created an atmosphere of fear. Some ethnic Chinese scientists disproportionately feel that their ethnicity and connections to China inhibit their professional progress and their chances of obtaining — and willingness to apply for — research funding in the United States. A survey of scientists of Chinese descent at American universities released last year found that significant percentages of respondents felt unwelcome in the United States, with 86 percent saying the current climate makes it more difficult for the United States to attract top international students than it was five years ago.
This should be setting off alarm bells in Washington. Economic and military advantage is contingent on superior science, technology and innovation — and the competition for talent is global.
Studies show that the best science is often done by international research teams, presumably because researchers can select from a broader range of potential partners. When we discourage international collaboration in the absence of clear concerns about national security, we limit the pool of possible collaborators, potentially weakening the research.
This is especially true when it comes to China, which has become a scientific power.
China was second only to the United States in total spending on research and development as of 2018, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Chinese publishing of research papers has grown, by one measure, to 25 percent in 2020 from less than 1 percent of the global total before 1990.
This work is of increasingly high quality. According to some calculations, Chinese papers are cited (an indication of a paper’s impact) by academics in their own work more often than those of any other country. Academics also choose their partners based on who can best help them to advance their work, and researchers at American universities have for years chosen co-authors from China more than from any other country, according to a report from the National Science Foundation. Questions have been raised about Chinese academic fraud and low-quality patents, but more work is needed to assess how widespread those problems are.
Concerns over academic collaboration with China are legitimate. Under the Chinese model, civilian organizations and businesses are sometimes obliged to support the country’s military apparatus. I’ve heard enough to believe that some Chinese students in America may be reporting what happens in class to agents in China and that some Chinese scholars may have undisclosed agreements to relay what they have learned back home.
China’s government has contributed to the deterioration of academic cooperation. Conducting research in China is harder than it has been in years because of an increased emphasis there on ideology and national security, an ever-widening scope of topics deemed sensitive, decreasing academic freedom and, until they were ended last December, the smothering effect of nearly three years of zero-Covid policies.
But let’s not race China to the bottom. If America fails to attract top international research talent, that harms U.S. prospects for scientific advancement and, ultimately, American economic and national strength.
There is no doubt that present circumstances call for more transparency among scholars. Universities need to lead this change, whereby scholars pay greater attention to the implications of collaborating with foreign scientists. For example, Sweden has developed frameworks for assessing risks through more structured due diligence of research partners, including assessing complications that might arise when collaborating with scientists from authoritarian countries.
But we can’t let this get in the way of ensuring that the United States remains the best place in the world to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics and entices graduates from abroad to remain here after completing their degrees. Yet the number of U.S. visas granted to Chinese students has plummeted. To reverse this, visa processes should be streamlined, backlogs cleared and talented individuals given expanded opportunities to obtain green cards. America is training and educating some of the world’s brightest people; we need to get more of them and keep them here.
Likewise, more Americans need to be learning about China. The number of American students studying in China was already declining from a peak of about 15,000 in 2011-12; during the pandemic that plummeted to less than 400. China is, and will continue to be, a critical global player; understanding its internal dynamics will be important for people operating in a range of fields. Yet we are at risk of having an entire generation of Americans who know little about China.
We should immediately restart the Fulbright program in China, which sent thousands of Chinese and Americans between the two countries for research and learning until it was halted during the Trump administration, and increase federal funding for Chinese studies programs at our universities.
Keeping American higher education open to the world is not about helping China to become strong, nor should we delude ourselves about Beijing’s intentions. It’s about exuding confidence in the strength and virtues of our system to ensure that America remains the best country in the world for learning and research.
Dan Murphy is executive director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and former executive director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard.
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