Don’t Drive Away Smart Students
Since 2000, over 50,000 Chinese Ph.D. students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math have remained in the United States following their studies at American universities, generating cutting-edge research and founding start-ups valued collectively at $100 billion. For example, Yi Cui, after completing his undergraduate degree in China, came to Harvard University to pursue a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. Since graduating in 2002, he went on to become one of the world’s leading experts in nanotechnology at Stanford University and founded Amprius, a $600 million company that was recently awarded a contract by the U.S. Army to power next-generation tactical gear.
Outcompeting China for talent like Cui is key to preserving American techno-scientific primacy. But winning this competition is becoming more difficult due to restrictive U.S. visa policies and worsening relations between the two countries. Despite this, we believe that the time is ripe for the United States to redouble its efforts. In recent years Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made a strategic error, undermining the sources of Chinese economic growth and innovation by seeking greater control over universities and private markets. Xi’s policies of centralizing power are pushing away scientists and entrepreneurs, who the United States should be eager to recruit. By embracing policies to attract and retain disaffected Chinese talent — such as creating a more targeted migration screening process and providing green cards for Ph.D. students graduating from U.S. universities — Washington can continue to out-innovate its opponents in Beijing.
Chinese nationals coming to the United States for higher education and research have been a core part of the U.S.-Chinese relationship for nearly 50 years. Beginning in the late 1970s, China’s leaders began to send scholars overseas for academic and scientific exchanges based on Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” policy to rebuild the country’s economy following the Cultural Revolution. These exchanges were carefully controlled by the national government and limited to a few years abroad for established, mid-career scholars. However, by the 1980s scholars were allowed greater independence in arranging and self-funding travel, resulting in explosive growth in the number and type of exchanges taking place.
Growth was particularly large for Chinese graduate students enrolling in American universities. From 1987 to 2018, the number of Chinese nationals grew ten times and now makes up 16 percent of total enrollees in U.S. science, technology, engineering, and math programs, with 36,000 currently active doctoral students. In areas identified as critical and emerging technologies by the White House, like artificial intelligence, this share is even higher, at 27 percent.
During this same period, the percentage of Chinese nationals staying long term (at least 5–10 years) in the United States following graduation has been the highest in the world, averaging between 85 and 90 percent. Our research found that these high stay rates were primarily driven by economic incentives — the overall compensation that a Chinese national could earn in the United States in the private sector or academia well outpaced what they could hope to earn in their homeland at the time.
Bringing Home the hai gui
In response to these low return rates of the nation’s best scientific talent, the Chinese Communist Party launched a series of initiatives beginning in 2008 to bring these hai gui (“sea turtles”) back home. The most prominent of these was the Thousand Talents program set up by Li Yuanchao, the head of the Central Committee’s Organizational Department under Hu Jintao from 2007–2012.
Incentives in the program include competitive salaries and bonuses, leadership positions, research funds, housing allowances, and spousal job assistance. Taken together, these packages can rival or surpass the compensation offered by American employers. In addition to these benefits, Li also pushed for liberalization in academia — namely the adoption of Western norms around openness, collaboration, and meritocracy as the key to creating world-class universities and research environments for returnees.
Despite these efforts, the vast majority of U.S.-trained Chinese Ph.D. holders have remained stateside — some 50,000 since 2000. From a Chinese perspective this has been devastating, given that scientific talent sent to the United States often represents the crème de la crème of undergraduates at extremely selective universities. Furthermore, by not returning these researchers are not passing on tacit knowledge that is critical to implementing advanced laboratory techniques or operating equipment. So while the “pull” factors for reverse migration have not been nearly enough for the Chinese Communist Party to reach the end goal of 90 percent return rates for graduate students envisioned by Deng, the United States has been helping in recent years with the “push” factors to reverse this trend.
Security and Migration Policies in Tension
The December 2017 National Security Strategy released by the Trump administration proclaimed a new era of great-power competition with China and included a focus on “reviewing visa procedures to reduce economic theft by non-traditional intelligence collectors” and “considering restrictions on foreign [science, technology, math and science] students.” Although the White House initially considered a full ban on Chinese students, it ultimately embraced less expansive measures, including executive orders like Presidential Proclamation 10043, which remain in place today.
Proclamation 10043, issued in June 2020, stipulates that students who graduate from universities supporting China’s “military-civil fusion strategy” cannot be issued student visas regardless of their degree level or field of study. Given the broadness of the policy, reports suggest that it may affect 3,000–5,000 applicants per year. The wide net being cast prompted many of the top American research universities to send a letter of concern to the State Department seeking further clarity, lest the policy “cause delays” for “critical projects.”
Of equal concern is the unintended impact of these policies on America’s ability to attract and retain Chinese science, technology, math, and science talent. Despite acknowledgement from senior counter-intelligence officials that “ninety-nine point nine percent” of Chinese students do not come to the United States with malicious intent, the insinuation created by such policies — like Proclamation 10043 and the Department of Justice’s now-defunct “China Initiative” — is that all Chinese students are potential spies and agents of the state. This guilt by association is reinforced by high-profile, but unsubstantiated, arrests in recent years, like those of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen and University of Southern California professor Xi Xiaoxing, both of which help to create an unwelcoming environment for Chinese students and researchers.
Driven in part by the chilling effects of these policies, the number of Chinese student visas being requested dropped by half in recent years, reported Chinese student intention to study in the United States has fallen, and four out of 10 scientists of Chinese descent are considering leaving the United States out of fear of government surveillance. So, while the threat from espionage is substantial, the policies put in place have had the unintended consequence of making it much harder to attract and retain Chinese talent — a fact recognized internally by Beijing in a push to boost return rates.
Despite this, many within Washington security circles are advocating for visa policies that will only exacerbate the issue, calling for more expansive bans on visas or limiting even basic research collaborations. In doing so, they have suggested substituting Chinese nationals with either domestic talent or students from countries like India that do not pose a geopolitical threat. But this approach will not maintain America’s technological advantage. On the domestic front, better professional opportunities keep most of the brightest Americans from pursuing the often arduous, decade-long path for a Ph.D. And countries like India simply don’t have the equivalent talent based on the quality of their universities or their research specialties, like AI, compared to China.
More restrictive visa policies will bring other problems as well. By limiting contact with Chinese nationals, the United States loses the valuable intelligence into Chinese research developments that these exchanges bring. And, most importantly, by turning away top talent Washington allows the Chinese Communist Party to benefit uncontested from expertise that might otherwise end up in the United States.
Winning the War for Talent
Rather than driving off potential Chinese students, Washington should win them over by embracing deep-rooted reforms to the immigration system to favor highly skilled migrants. Indeed, the timing for this shift in strategy is ideal.
One of the notable trends in Xi’s consolidation of power has been the reassertion of the Chinese Communist Party’s need for control and stability above economic considerations. The subjugation of once-influential tech executives, the renewed focus on Marxist-Leninist ideology, the restored primacy of state-owned enterprises, and the rigid zero-Covid policy has created a chill among China’s academics and entrepreneurial class alike. In this pivot away from his predecessor’s pragmatic, market-oriented policies, Xi threatens to kill the golden goose that powers China’s growing economic and scientific prowess. As with German scientist emigres during the 1930s, driven out due to religious persecution or disillusioned by the loss of academic freedom under the Nazi regime, the United States has a window of opportunity to draw in human capital that may prove pivotal in the competition ahead.
With this in mind, we argue that the U.S. government should focus on three main areas to improve the attractiveness of the United States as a destination for Chinese talent. First, adopt a more surgical approach to security screening around migration. Second, reform visa procedures for graduate students in key science, technology, engineering, and math fields. And finally, complement these steps with improved messaging and outreach.
An immediate reform that the Biden administration can implement is to revise Proclamation 10043 to remove unnecessary barriers to top-level Chinese talent studying in the country. A 2021 Carnegie Endowment report noted that China, like most countries, has active efforts to integrate its universities with its defense sector, so issuing a blanket ban on individuals with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Chinese universities could impact up to 100 institutions. Even if the proclamation is not interpreted this broadly, it could still block 20 percent of annual Chinese enrollment in U.S. science, technology, engineering, and math programs. Already, the eight universities currently targeted by the proclamation include some of China’s top universities in the C9 League.
Instead of this shotgun approach, the United States should better define the scope and goals of this policy. Targeting specific departments within these schools with known military ties would be a good start. Even here, it may be overly broad to keep individuals with bachelor’s or master’s degrees out of the United States, since these students are unlikely to be directly involved in high-end research or have networks in the military establishment. Instead, the focus should be on limiting the entry of mid-career researchers with no academic degrees from American universities. These individuals are much more likely to represent a threat based on past breaches of national security.
Visa reform is key to maintaining the Chinese-U.S. talent pipeline. Chief among these reforms is providing a seamless pathway from U.S. graduate programs to the academic or private sector workforce. Proposals like removing the H1B visa cap for graduates from science, technology, engineering, and math Ph.D. programs were proposed under both the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act (CHIPS Act) and the Inflation Reduction Act but removed due to procedural issues. We would go further and recommend that individuals graduating from U.S. universities with a doctorate be immediately eligible for permanent resident status — a Green Card — with preference given to those specializing in critical and emerging technologies. Ideally this status should extend to family members as well, given that our research found that separation from family members is an important factor pulling individuals back to China.
Finally, to win this war for human capital, U.S. politicians should tone down their anti-China rhetoric, making clearer separations between the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China. Racial and ethnic attacks on individuals of Asian descent have increased by 339 percent in the last year, driven in part by inflammatory rhetoric from government leaders. Not only does this rhetoric feed Chinese government propaganda, but it also decreases the appeal of the United States as a destination among exchange students. While America cannot overcome a decade of concerted propaganda that has linked the Chinese Communist Party to the nation itself in many people’s minds, the United States should strive to be the best version of itself in this contest of “democracies vs autocracies” — the type of country that once granted Green Cards for 50,000 Chinese students following the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Despite the challenges created by declining U.S.-Chinese relations, Washington has an opportunity to better position itself to win this war for scientific and engineering talent. The Biden administration and Congress should take advantage of Xi’s myopic focus on ensuring party primacy and work to strengthen and secure the U.S.-Chinese talent pipeline that has been critical to American innovation capacity. Only by embracing the best aspects of the liberal ideal — respect for individual rights, a posture of openness, and faith in free markets — can the United States succeed against its illiberal competitors.
Ryan P. Kellogg is an investor and manager in the energy industry with 18 years experience working in STEM-related fields. Ryan earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and International Business and Politics in East Asia from North Carolina State University and a M.B.A. from the University of California-Los Angeles. His research on migration preferences of Chinese STEM doctoral students in the United States has been cited by Congress, national security think tanks, and academia.
Anita R. Kellogg is an assistant professor at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, National Defense University. She is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of California-Los Angeles with a focus in international relations and quantitative methods. Her current research focuses on how China uses economic statecraft to achieve its foreign policy goals.