Racial profiling of Chinese scientists is spreading fear

Racial profiling of both Asian-American and Asian scientists in the United States is causing fear and anxiety, and particularly for researchers and faculty from China, leading them to reassess their future in the country, a major survey has found.

But the impact of racial profiling goes beyond the individuals singled out by race, as scientists and universities are becoming reluctant to engage in projects with China or collaborate with scholars based in China.

This is the finding of the just-released survey report, Racial Profiling Among Scientists of Chinese Descent and Consequences for the US Scientific Community by Jenny Lee and Xiaojie Li at the University of Arizona in the US and the staff at Committee of 100 – an organisation of Chinese Americans in business, academia, government and the arts fund.

In one of the first academic reports that tries to assess the racial impact of US government policies that target China, the survey conducted between May and July this year of almost 2,000 scientists in top US universities uncovered significant differences in the experiences of scientists of Chinese and non-Chinese descent.

It found that around 42.2% of Chinese scientists – people of Chinese descent or heritage, regardless of citizenship – in the US feel racially profiled by the US government, compared to 27% of Asian scientists who are not Chinese, and 8.6% of non-Chinese scientists, including faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students.

About half of Chinese scientists reported considerable fear or anxiety that they are under surveillance by the US government, compared to a quarter of Asian scientists who are not Chinese and 11.7% of non-Chinese. Among Chinese scientists, those who are not US citizens particularly report feelings of fear and anxiety compared to Chinese scientists who are US citizens.

“We were expecting to find some patterns, but we were not expecting the differences between those of Chinese descent and those who were not Chinese to be so stark,” the University of Arizona’s Lee told University World News.

Impact on career and work

Particularly on the impact on their work prospects, “there was no distinct difference between Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans, whether US-born or naturalised citizens. So we’re not just talking about entry level or early immigrants but US citizens who have had long careers in this country and that was surprising for us, and disheartening,” Lee said.

Some 38.4% of Chinese scientists said they experience difficulty in obtaining research funding in the US as a result of their race, nationality or country of origin compared to one in four Asian scientists who are not Chinese and only 14% of non-Chinese scientists reported such difficulties.

Similarly, more than a third – around 37% – of Chinese scientists felt they faced professional challenges such as promotion or professional recognition difficulties due to their race, nationality or country of origin. The proportion was similar among non-Chinese Asian scientists, but just 8.8% of non-Chinese scientists perceived such barriers to their career prospects.

China Initiative fuels fears

The survey report released on 28 October found that in particular the US Justice Department’s China Initiative, which specifically targets researchers with links to China, but also a hostile racial climate fuelled by political rhetoric of China as a competitor, has led many Chinese scientists in the US to question their sense of belonging in the US, and to fear that being Chinese may stall their research careers.

The Justice Department’s China Initiative was described as being among the “ongoing xenophobic crusades that is still in place today”. Launched in November 2018 under former US president Donald Trump to combat security concerns about possible intellectual espionage from China, the initiative continues under the administration of President Joe Biden.

Since its onset, numerous scientists of Chinese descent have been charged and some who were subsequently exonerated still experienced considerable damage to their professional reputations and research careers, the report notes.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has investigated many more, although the exact numbers are unknown to the public.

Despite the overwhelming majority of both Chinese and non-Chinese saying Chinese scientists make important contributions to research and teaching in their field, many Chinese faculty members, including those who are US citizens with longstanding careers in the country, questioned whether to stay in the US in the future as a consequence of the China Initiative.

Among non-US citizen scientists in the sample, 42% of the Chinese scientists indicate that the FBI investigations and-or the China Initiative affected their plans to stay in the US, while only 7% of the non-Chinese scientists report this.

But scientists feel that the racial profiling takes place more at the federal level, rather than being targeted by their university or colleagues, although 11% to 12% also report racial profiling in their institution, which Lee said was a clear indication of the role of government policies.

In addition to the initiative, “this rhetoric from the administration of needing to compete with China is also contributing to distrust,” Lee said.

Under Biden there has been greater funding for science compared to the previous administration “but it’s science with the angle of greater competition with China. So, I would argue the sciences are more of a weapon than under the Trump administration, where science itself was questioned,” Lee explained.

Ambiguity stokes fear

Pointing to the level of fear among Chinese scientists, Lee noted that “we’re not talking about scientists who are doing criminal acts. But it has come to a point where there is ‘criminality’ around the idea of collaborating with China and the ways that universities are choosing to interpret that, which I believe has been quite extreme.”

“There isn’t a lot of consistency, but worse there’s a lot of ambiguity and I think that is contributing to Chinese scientists feeling especially afraid,” she said.

The report notes: “The chilling effect has even touched upon those who do not perceive their work as being sensitive or of any potential interest to China. Yet, the vast discrepancy between Chinese and non-Chinese groups indicated that the Chinese scientific community, and to some extent the broader Asian community, in the US is hit especially hard.”

A Chinese associate professor of engineering was quoted in the report as saying: “It causes pressure and fear, which absolutely affects my productivity.

“I fully support that no law should be violated, and people who violated the law should be punished. However, now the academia’s routine activities are misinterpreted, and the investigations are full of racial profiling.”

The report calls for the initiative to be terminated. “Lawmakers and academic leaders continue to heavily criticise this controversial measure as an ineffective and discriminatory form of racial profiling that harms US competitiveness in science and technology,” it noted.

Impact on research collaboration

Importantly, the report found that feeling racially profiled by the US government increases reluctance among scientists to work with scholars based in China.

“The China Initiative is producing a wave of fear among other groups that also engage with China. Those who do not identify as Asian also describe cutting ties with their overseas Chinese collaborators, no longer hiring postdocs from China, and limiting communication with Chinese scientists from abroad, even at the expense of their research projects,” the report notes.

Specifically, the report finds a correlation between feeling racially profiled by the US government as well as fear and anxiety about being under surveillance, with scientists limiting communication with research colleagues in China and deciding not to involve China in future projects.

Among those conducting research that involves China over the past three years, just over 40% of Chinese reported limiting communication with collaborators in China compared to 13% of non-Chinese saying this.

Almost one in four Chinese scientists reported deciding not to involve China in future projects, compared to just 6% of non-Chinese scientists deciding to exclude China. Around 23% of Chinese scientists said they would not work with collaborators in China in future projects, compared to around one in 10 non-Chinese saying the same.

“The political environment in the US is frightening; and as a result, I have purposely avoided interacting or collaborating with China,” a Chinese associate professor of chemistry was quoted in the report as saying.

A Chinese American professor of applied mathematics said: “As a way to protect myself from the systematic political persecution of Chinese scientists, I do not plan to work with scientists in China before the end of such systematic discrimination.”

A Chinese American associate professor of biophysics said: “Even though I do not work in a sensitive field, nor do I deal with any privileged or proprietary information, I am increasingly hesitant to interact or collaborate with scientists from China for fear it may be misconstrued by overzealous authorities as a conflict of national interest.”

Ambiguity and lack of transparency

Scientists who ended or suspended collaborations overwhelmingly cited the top reason as being to distance themselves from collaborators in China due to the China Initiative, with 61% saying this, followed by travel bans or visa challenges (38.8%), or their academic institution advising to end collaborations with China (16.3%).

While some reported pressure from their universities, many noted that there were no clear rules about what kind of collaboration is allowed. Almost one in four Chinese and one in five non-Chinese scientists said their academic institution had not provided clear guidelines on how to report conflicts of interest.

“Greater transparency is needed, not just from the FBI, but also from federal funding agencies and universities. For most scientists whose research has long been built and is oftentimes dependent on overseas expertise, the determining line where international collaboration becomes a security violation is uncertain,” the report explained.

But it warns: “The problem of racial profiling in the scientific community will not be eradicated with the elimination of particular federal policies or clear-cut procedures alone. Clearly, more work is needed to combat the current wave of anti-Asian hate in the US. Universities should consider similar studies to examine the campus racial climate.”