American Universities Shouldn’t Cut All Ties With China

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

First published by Foreign Affairs

Why Academic Links Are Essential in a Fragmenting World

Since the United States and China reopened diplomatic relations in the late 1970s, the leaders of both countries have recognized the value of having their universities work together in research and education, to promote prosperity and friendship. Today, however, U.S. policymakers are so concerned about the potential transfer of advances in science and technology from American university laboratories to China that, step by step, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, they are discouraging academic exchanges. Research papers authored jointly by U.S. and Chinese scientists fell in 2021 for the first time in decades, the number of American scientists of Chinese descent leaving the United States for China has ticked upward, and surveys of Chinese students thinking of studying abroad suggest that the United States is becoming a less desirable destination for many of them.

In late August, the U.S. government continued to signal its wariness about academic engagements with China by waiting until the last minute to renew the landmark U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, which dates back to 1979. The agreement commits each country to encouraging contacts between their people and organizations, and paves the way for joint research and the exchange of scientists and students. The Biden administration has extended it for only another six months, and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill would like to see it expire.

Although China clearly pursues its own interests when working alongside the United States in scientific explorations, maintaining connections between the two countries’ scientists may be more important than ever. The Beijing-Washington relationship has deteriorated into something akin to a new Cold War, setting up a dangerous rivalry that could damage both countries, and the world. Universities can contribute to stabilizing this relationship without increasing the United States’ vulnerability to Chinese espionage or other efforts to benefit unduly from U.S. research—as long as they do not underestimate the risks posed by engaging with their counterparts based in a rival nation. But universities—and the U.S. government—should avoid exaggerating the risks, as well.

Universities have often played an important role in lowering international tensions and encouraging mutual understanding. Even during the most fraught periods of the Cold War, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union saw reasons to cooperate in academic science. The Lacy-Zaroubin Agreement of 1958 authorized the exchange of delegations of professors between Columbia University and Moscow University and between Harvard University and Leningrad University. The deal also charged the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Soviet Academy of Sciences with promoting a broader series of visits. Eighteen years after these exchanges began, a panel led by MIT economist Carl Kaysen found that the academy-sponsored program had been a “striking, even spectacular” success in forging links between the two countries’ scientists, in helping the United States learn about Soviet capabilities in science and technology, and in improving relations between the two superpowers.

Of course, there are important differences between U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War and U.S.-Chinese relations today. The United States was not particularly tied to the Soviet Union economically, but it is to China, which means that economic concerns and national security concerns are far more intertwined than they were during the Cold War. And today, many more technologies are dual use, with both commercial and military applications. This overlap complicates the question of which fields of research are too sensitive to allow for collaboration. Despite these differences, there is still reason to believe that academic exchanges can help people transcend their national narratives and find common ground in the pursuit of scientific truth.

One of the most important ways that American universities promote mutual understanding between countries—while also advancing U.S. interests—is by educating students from around the world. More international students come to the United States than to any other country, with China and India the top foreign sources of U.S. students. As is often noted, the ability of American universities to attract the world’s best talent is a key to the United States’ success. This also happens to be the form of global engagement where the risks are smallest. Generally, students’ access to information is circumscribed, so they would have limited utility as foreign agents.

Yet these days, I often hear the question: Why would an American university want to educate the human capital of an unfriendly country? The answer is that, on balance, educating international talent, including that of unfriendly nations, is overwhelmingly beneficial to the United States. Nationwide, in fields as crucial to the economy and national security as engineering, computer science, and mathematics, more than half of American doctorates go to international students. The National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates tells us that the majority of these international doctoral recipients—including nearly three out of four Chinese doctoral recipients—intend to remain in the United States after their studies. And despite the obstacles the U.S. government sets, most of them find a way to stay. In 2017, 90 percent of the STEM students from China who had earned doctoral degrees in the United States between 2000 and 2015 were still in the United States, helping the country advance. Instead of contributing their considerable talents to their home country, they choose to stay and contribute to the United States. This is a brain gain that the country should be celebrating.

Unfortunately, as a country, the United States has been undermining itself in recent years with policies that discourage brilliant students from attending American schools, beginning in 2017 with the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. In 2018, the U.S. government shortened student visas for Chinese graduate students studying certain fields from five years to one year. In May 2020, the Trump administration announced its decision to deny visas to Chinese graduate students currently or previously affiliated with institutions that support China’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” The Biden administration has left this policy in place.

This restriction on Chinese graduate students is both broad and opaque, and the criteria for its implementation have never been made clear. As long as it remains in effect, this policy is probably preventing between 3,000 and 5,000 Chinese students from entering U.S. graduate programs every year, according to a 2021 analysis published by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Although China has a national security law that compels its citizens to assist in intelligence gathering whenever it is demanded of them, reports of Chinese students engaging in activities that threaten U.S. national or economic security are rare.

Once international graduate students are in the United States, it can be difficult for them to remain. After they earn their degrees, most of them will move from one type of temporary status to another, without a clear path to a green card for permanent residency. Because the United States has strict annual quotas by country and by category for green cards, graduate students often have to wait years before gaining the assurance that they and their families will not be unexpectedly uprooted.

At universities such as MIT, many international graduate students become entrepreneurs, often spinning new companies out of the research they conduct in our laboratories. The United States offers no visa specifically for these young founders, however, and instead requires employer sponsorship. These founders generally have to prove that they are employees of their own startups—and are able to be fired—forcing them to make the difficult choice of potentially losing control of their own inventions or leaving the country.

There is actually a considerable bipartisan consensus in Washington that the government needs to fix this situation and make it as easy as possible for international students who earn advanced degrees in STEM fields to stay, to work, and to launch companies in the United States. There have been a number of proposals over the years to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of international graduate students in STEM fields. Legislation introduced in July by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.Dak.) would exempt advanced STEM graduates from green card quotas. But such proposals have been consistently held up in Congress because of the heated disagreement regarding comprehensive immigration reform.

What if the U.S.-educated students do not stay, and instead return home to help the United States’ geopolitical rivals build their own capabilities? They return home with the perspectives gained on U.S. campuses, and educated young people are often the only hope for social and political progress in countries that oppress their own people today.

Other kinds of engagements with China, including collaborations in research and institutional partnerships, demand more circumspection from universities. Beijing aspires to rival Washington in economic, diplomatic, and military power and to develop a new world order that promotes different principles from those that underpin the system the United States and its allies built after World War II. Unsurprisingly, Beijing has tried to benefit from technologies invented in the West, and it has sometimes done so through industrial espionage and the theft of intellectual property.

But China is the world’s other great superpower in science and engineering, just behind the United States in its combined public- and private-sector investments in research and development. Because of the quality of the research now being conducted in China, Chinese researchers are the most frequent international co-authors for American researchers in peer-reviewed science and engineering journals. For that reason, putting blanket limitations on collaborating with Chinese peers would mean limiting U.S. progress. Nonetheless, there are growing pressures in both countries to construct higher barriers to research and educational exchanges.

In 2019, MIT tightened its review process for potential international collaborations with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, as well as projects elsewhere that may carry special risks. Proposals are carefully screened, and a small committee of top administrators reviews the thorniest proposals. By 2021, as tensions grew between the United States and China, it was clear to MIT that it needed to articulate a strategy specifically for China. The university formed a group to study the problem and charged it with finding a balance between gaining the benefits of scientific and educational collaboration and avoiding undermining U.S. national or economic security, or human rights in China. The group’s recommendations, which are now university policy, preclude as potential research partners China’s national defense universities, military research institutes, national defense laboratories at civilian universities, and companies that are Chinese military providers or whose activities contribute to the oppression of Chinese citizens.

Because most engagements with China are initiated by faculty members, the group’s report offered MIT researchers guidance on what activities they can and should undertake and those they should avoid. The university urges researchers to make sure the benefits of any collaboration will be mutual. It also urges them to avoid participation in talent recruitment programs that pay scientists from other nations to conduct research in China or to open laboratories there, and to establish norms within their research group regarding the sharing of information.

As universities consider the risks involved in any international engagement, they should also consider what they risk by not collaborating with foreign partners. If universities can strike the right balance, they can safeguard open scientific research, open exchange, and the free flow of ideas and people while still recognizing that, when dealing with countries that have authoritarian governments, the goodwill of individual researchers does not guarantee a good result.

Sometimes, however, when it comes to China, the government from which U.S. academics need protection is their own. In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department launched the China Initiative, to address the theft of sensitive data and technologies by people funded by the Chinese government. Many academic scientists and engineers felt stigmatized by these investigations because they were born in China or were of Chinese descent. Add to this a wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic, and the result was a sense of fear and anxiety among people whose talents the United States has long welcomed.

At MIT, this quickly became personal, as one of our colleagues, Gang Chen, a distinguished professor and an expert in heat transfer and energy conversion, was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors with failing to disclose Chinese affiliations on grant applications. We had faith in him from the beginning, and the Department of Justice ultimately dropped the charges. His story was not unique: a number of such cases against university researchers were dropped or dismissed.

The Department of Justice has since recognized the unfairness of the China Initiative name, which suggested that there was a lower threshold for prosecution for people with Chinese ties or heritage—and retired the program in favor of its broader Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats. But the effects still linger, with researchers such as Chen who were wrongly accused now much more cautious in their work and in their decisions about whether to seek federal funding or which students and collaborators to take on. A recently published survey of Chinese American university scientists sponsored by the Asian American Scholar Forum found that 72 percent do not feel safe as an academic researcher in the United States, 65 percent are worried about collaborations with China, and 86 percent are finding it harder to recruit international students.

In considering security risks, every university should go beyond mere compliance with government rules and put policies in place to help the institution and individual faculty members decide when foreign collaborations are appropriate and when they are not. And clearly, the United States government must take action against anyone illicitly transferring technologies to other countries. But it is up to both government and university leaders to ensure that legitimate national security concerns do not result in indiscriminate policies that make most academic exchanges impossible. Different kinds of collaborations involve various levels of risk, and they should be assessed accordingly. For example, collaborations where each country’s scientists work in their own laboratories but publish together may raise fewer issues than those in which laboratories are shared.

There are also specific fields—such as climate change, pandemic prevention, cancer treatment, and food safety—where the risks of collaborating are small and the potential benefits to humanity are immense. Even in those areas of science and engineering in which China and the United States are ferociously competitive, it may be possible to join forces on fundamental, pre-competitive research. The scientific advances resulting from such collaborations are openly published, to the benefit of the world—even as the two nations race each other to develop applications based on that science to their own advantage.

If American universities are strongly discouraged from working with China, they will no longer have the ability to accelerate progress on global challenges by sharing ideas and resources with Chinese scientists or to improve themselves through collaboration, competition, and attracting great talent. And most significant, the United States will understand much less about where China stands—not just in terms of technology development and military modernization but also in terms of its people’s goals and aspirations.

Unfortunately, China now seems less interested in being known. It has cut off foreign access to its most important academic databases, frustrating not just U.S. scientists and engineers but also Americans who study China’s economy, politics, culture, and history and who help the United States comprehend its greatest geopolitical competitor.

Scientific cooperation is an essential form of diplomacy, generating open-mindedness, patience, and fellow feeling. Once they begin working together for a higher cause, faculty and students from countries with long-standing animosities often overcome their cultural biases and learn to respect each other as peers. And connections forged in academic settings can have enormous geopolitical consequences: during the Cold War, the trust that American scientists established with their Soviet colleagues while considering purely scientific issues helped lead to bilateral agreements on arms control. Although not everyone approves of the Iran nuclear agreement reached in 2015, the fact that an agreement could be achieved at all was surely helped by the MIT connection shared by two of the key people negotiating it: then U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a longtime MIT faculty member, and Ali Akbar Salehi, then head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and an MIT alumnus. As Moniz has said, although the two men did not know each other at MIT, they had mutual friends and professional contacts thanks to their shared affiliation with the university, which helped them build mutual trust.

The United States needs to develop a fuller understanding of its strategic competitors, both to challenge them and to seek common ground for the sake of peaceful coexistence and mutual prosperity in a non-zero-sum world. If the United States and China cease trying to understand each other, the results may be catastrophic.

Universities are uniquely able to build bridges through education, research, and joint problem solving. Because they employ the shared common language of science and scholarship, at moments when dialogue seems to be impossible, they are sometimes the only institutions still able to build those bridges. American universities should accept and embrace the responsibility to build them, despite the political headwinds.

L. RAFAEL REIF is President Emeritus and the Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.