White House discussed unilateral ban on Chinese students

The Trump administration earlier this year considered banning Chinese nationals from studying in the United States, as part of a national security strategy to crack down on intellectual property theft, according to a report in the Financial Times or FT.

The idea was dropped amid fears of the damage it would cause to the economy and diplomatic relations with China.

Of the more than a million international students in the United States, more than a third come from China.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president at the American Council on Education, which represents nearly 1,700 US college and university presidents, told University World News that the proposed unilateral ban on Chinese students would have had an “immediate and serious impact” on US colleges and universities and would have been a source of “enormous controversy”.

“Even during the height of the Cold War we did not ban international students from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe – nor [did we] from the Middle East after September 11, 2001."

So the proposal represented a "radical departure in federal policy towards international education”.

The FT reported that during discussions about how to combat Chinese spying, Stephen Miller, a White House official who had been instrumental in developing the administration’s hardline immigration policies, pressed the US president and other officials in the administration to block student visas for Chinese nationals.

The proposal had emerged in response to a new national security strategy released in December which called for a review of visa procedures to “reduce economic theft by non-traditional intelligence collectors”.

But according to the FT, Miller also argued for it on the grounds that it would hurt elite universities whose staff and students have been highly critical of President Donald Trump.

The plan was shelved after US ambassador to China Terry Branstad, a former governor of Iowa, warned that the plan would hit smaller colleges much harder than the leading universities; and after US embassy officials in China warned that most US states benefit economically from the spending of Chinese students.

Hartle told University World News it was fortunate that cool heads prevailed in the White House and the president was not persuaded, but in in one sense it is not surprising that blocking the entry of international students has been raised along with similar questions about an array of visitors to the US, including tourists and refugees.

“This is an administration that very much wants to tighten access to the US,” Hartle said, “In some cases [the proposals] are a radical break from past practice. To date they have not been put in place, but obviously there is a vocal component that thinks they should be.”

While President Trump agreed to drop the proposal, hardliners in the White House have not given up on the possibility of returning to it at a future date, the FT reported, particularly given the rising tension with China, fuelled by Trump’s imposition of trade tariffs and ongoing concern over cyber security.

Hartle said it is estimated that international students contribute around US$37 billion to US$38 billion to the US economy and it is assumed that Chinese students, as roughly one third of the international student population, contribute US$10 billion to US$12 billion.

He said that, even though the Trump administration took the right decision, the mere fact that the proposal to unilaterally ban Chinese students was discussed in the Oval Office “sends the wrong signal” to potential students and, along with the various attempts to bring in a travel ban on certain mainly Muslim majority countries – a narrow, targeted version of which is now in place – “could discourage them from coming to the US and we think that would be a serious loss for the country”.

Hartle said the US has “benefited for a very long time by being one of the most desirable destinations for the world’s best students and scholars. It’s in our interests that we remain so, and I hope the administration will take a thoughtful and nuanced approach to issues surrounding such visitors, rather than just barring the door, a unilateral approach.”

Intellectual property theft

He added that there is “no question that the Chinese have not been good on the protection of intellectual property anywhere” and the federal government is worried that too many people who come to the US are engaging in espionage, whether for industrial or national security purposes. But the solution is not a unilateral ban on all Chinese students, he argues.

“We think the government has to do a better job of identifying people they have concerns about and we have to do a better job of working with the administration to make sure that once people are on campus we keep better track of them and alert the government if suspicion arises,” he told University World News

“This calls for increased observation and enforcement of existing laws, but we think blanket prohibition is the wrong way to go.”

Since the terrorist attack on New York on 11 September 2001, the rules governing international students have been tightened. Universities are required to register international students on a government database, monitor them and alert the government if the student stops showing up for classes or appears to have dropped out.

Acquiring sensitive secrets

The administration’s concerns over non-US citizens at US universities go beyond students, however. In May the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering strict measures to block Chinese citizens from performing sensitive research at American universities and research institutes over fears that they might be acquiring sensitive intellectual secrets.

The measures considered included limiting the access of Chinese citizens to the United States, including restricting certain types of visas available to them and greatly expanding the rules related to Chinese researchers who work on projects with military or intelligence value at US firms and universities. Graduate students, postdoctoral workers and employees of technology companies in the US on temporary visas were thought to be the main target.

In February, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray warned the Senate Intelligence Committee of a vast network of Chinese operatives at US universities, comprising professors, scientists and students who could be spying on campuses, Newsweek reported.

“They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it,” Wray said.