Do U.S. Universities Need Students from China?



At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic former President Donald Trump wisely paused the admissions of many forms of nonimmigrant visas – notably guestworkers (H-1B, H-2B, etc.), but also student visas. Proclamation 9993 barred the entry of nonimmigrants from countries with high levels of COVID-19 – including those from China. On April 27, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that students from countries affected by a geographic COVID-19 restriction will be able to qualify for a national interest exemption.

This begs the question – is it in the national interest of the United States to continue educating university students from China?

China is our biggest geopolitical adversary. This is not a personal opinion – this is a fact expressed by the intelligence community of the United States. Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), confirmed that the agency opens a new cybersecurity investigation against China every 10 hours. In many respects the United States is engaged in a new cold war against China, spanning everything from defense and economics to political philosophy and popular culture. The Chinese certainly see America as their primary rival. In fact, a recent poll found that a supermajority of those polled – 74 percent – hold unfavorable views of the United States, whereas just 17 percent hold favorable views.

If we dig deeper into the issue of student visas specifically, the problem becomes much clearer. Our universities are already a “soft target” for Chinese espionage, exemplified by the recent case of University of Texas professor Bo Mao spying for Chinese officials. There are scores of documented cases of Chinese intelligence using Chinese students to steal U.S. military and industrial secrets.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic about one third of all foreign students in the United States were Chinese. Think about the national security implications of that fact. The United States – through our world-class universities – is happily educating nationals from our greatest rival on the world stage. In extreme cases, some of those students become American citizens and then subsequently spy on the U.S. for the Chinese Communist Party. But in many others, these students return home to China with American degrees to work in China for either the Chinese government or for any one of China’s CCP-aligned firms.

How on earth is this in our national interest? Even if you agree with the notion that we should maintain or even increase the number of foreign student visas, why would we allocate such a great proportion of those visas to citizens of a country that views us as a rival, targets our elections, steals American intellectual property, hacks our government systems, and openly attacks the notion of Western democracy as a whole?

Instead of reflexively reopening student visas to China, our government should take this opportunity to reevaluate our country’s relationship with this rival power. There is no credible national interest in educating Chinese students. Universities will protest that barring or reducing Chinese student access to F-1 visas will cost them money, but this is a fallacy. Any student visa not given to a Chinese student could – and would – almost certainly go to a student from anywhere else in the world.

Simply put, it is in our national interest to educate students from allied countries – those from NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Oceania – and not students from China. Secretary Blinken, the rest of the Biden administration, and Congress ought to investigate this idea further and truly evaluate what good it does the United States to educate hundreds of thousands of Chinese students. 

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