If you have never heard of Qian Xueshen (1911–2009), you should learn his story. Qian was born in China and came to the U.S. in 1935. After receiving a Masters in mechanical engineering at MIT, Qian went to pursue a Ph.D. at CalTech. There, Qian became the mentee of renowned mathematician, Professor Theodore von Karman — a leading aerospace engineer and physicist — who esteemed Qian as a genius. During World War II, Qian joined the Manhattan Project. His talent helped the U.S. build the world’s first atomic bomb, and ultimately, win the war.
Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, two superpowers with very different socio-economic systems and ideologies, engaged in a fierce Cold War. Concerned with the growing threat of Communism and Communist-sympathizers within the U.S., and fearful of Soviet spies and the endangerment of national security, President Henry Truman issued a loyalty order in 1947, which mandated a sweeping loyalty investigation of federal employees, thus beginning the period of anti-Communist hysteria known as the “Red Scare.”
Qian initially had no plans to return to China. He was offered a good job as the first director of CalTech’s jet-propulsion lab and had applied for U.S. citizenship. However, the Red Scare intensified after the Chinese Communist Party took control of China in 1949, which was followed by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (R., Wis.) crusade against Communism through heightening repression and the spread of fear. It was in this environment that Qian lost his security clearance and his U.S. citizenship application was denied, even though there was no evidence proving he was ever a Communist or a Communist sympathizer. Feeling disheartened, Qian sought to leave the U.S. The U.S. government, however, denied his request to leave the country, instead placing him under house arrest for five years — all because he knew too much about the nation’s nuclear-weapons program. The U.S. government eventually deported Qian back to China in 1955 in exchange for U.S. pilots who were captured during the Korean War.
Upon returning to China, Qian led China’s successful testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs in the 1960s. He was also credited for playing a crucial role in the development of the Chinese military’s ballistic-missile program and space program. For these accomplishments, Qian was named the “Father of Rocketry” in China. Later, former U.S. Navy secretary Dan Kimball would conclude that Qian’s coerced incarceration and deportation “was the stupidest thing this country ever did.”
It seems that history is about to repeat itself. President Trump recently announced that the U.S. will cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students and researchers from universities directly affiliated with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The plan is to expel those who are already in the U.S. and deny entry of those who are currently outside of the U.S. The Trump administration insists that this move is essential and necessary to crack down on Communist China’s spying and intellectual-property theft in the U.S. and to protect the United States’ national security.
Such a concern is not without merit. Beijing has publicly announced that it wants to surpass the U.S. by 2050 and dominate the fields of strategic science and information technology, especially in areas where technologies retain military applications. Rather than taking the time to invest in basic research and foster an academic environment that encourages free thinking, free ideas, and free innovation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to take shortcuts. One path they have taken is to send military officers to study abroad, exploiting the Western democracies’ openness and academic freedom to gather information or even conduct espionage activities, all for the advancement of China’s own technology development and military competitiveness. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated that the PLA sponsored about 2,500 scientists and engineers to study at top universities and research institutes abroad in the last decade, without disclosing their military background.
A telling example is Yanqing Ye. Ye studied at Boston University’s Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019. Ye was charged by the Department of Justice (DOJ) on January 28, 2020. According to the DOJ’s indictment, Ye is a lieutenant of the PLA and a member of the CCP. However, on her student visa application, she did not disclose her active military service at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a famed military academy in China. The U.S. had previously placed NUDT on an export blacklist after finding that it “used U.S. semiconductors to build supercomputers, which, in addition to civilian tasks, are used in the development of nuclear weapons, encryption, missile defense and other systems.”
Furthermore, the DOJ alleges that while at BU, Ye “had accessed U.S. military websites, researched U.S. military projects and compiled information for the PLA on two U.S. military projects and compiled information for the PLA on two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science.” The DOJ charged Ye for visa fraud and acting as an agent of a foreign government. However, Ye had already returned to China when the DOJ filed its charges, so it is unlikely that she will face any legal ramifications.
Ye’s case highlights intelligence challenges the U.S. government faces. Clearly, something must be done. Still, is the administration’s plan to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students and researchers the most effective way to address this problem? Clearly not.
The New York Times noted that even U.S. officials involved in the decision-making “acknowledged there was no direct evidence that pointed to wrongdoing by the students who are about to lose their visas. Instead, suspicions by American officials center on the Chinese universities at which the students trained as undergraduates.” By forcing out these talents whom the U.S. helped to train, without evidence of committing any crime, the U.S. is doing exactly what it did to Qian decades ago, only this time, on a much larger scale. As a result, the U.S. government will hand Communist China a desperately needed brain gain, which Beijing could use to enhance its technology and military competitiveness. If history has offered us any guidance, we must recognize that the expulsion of Chinese students in such an unmitigated manner may do more harm than good to the U.S. national security.
Some argue that the U.S. government’s plan would only impact an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Chinese students, a small portion of the close to 360,000 Chinese students who are currently studying in the U.S. However, it is naive to assume that watching their compatriots being expelled will have no effect on the psyche of the rest of the overseas Chinese student body. Chinese students are already in a catch-22 situation: They know CCP spies are closely monitoring and reporting them, and that anything they do or say may impact the safety and well-being of their loved ones back in China. The CCP also targets overseas China students with an intense public-relationships campaign by telling them that the U.S. is a racist country in which they will never be treated as equals, and that their best hope is to support the CCP and its policies. Now, it’s likely some of them will view the Trump administration’s expulsion of a few thousand Chinese students as the beginning of a wholesale rejection of all Chinese students simply based on their nationality and ethnicity. They may feel that they have no choice but to support the CCP.
Punishing Chinese students for the sins of the CCP is not only unfair, but it also plays into the hands of the CCP’s propaganda and will likely stoke Chinese nationalism both at home and abroad. Not to mention it will undermine our values as a free and open society. As the experience of Qian Xueshen demonstrates, unnecessary fear leads to bad decisions with profoundly negative impacts on our national security. A better approach to clamping down on Communist China’s spying and intellectual property theft is first to have American universities and the U.S. government work closely together to enhance screening of student visa applicants, lowering the possibility of allowing suspected personnel into the U.S.; and second, for Chinese students who are already here, address spying and intellectual theft issues on a case-by-case basis, only expelling those who committed a crime rather than rejecting a group of people simply by association of nationality. By doing so, we can show these Chinese students why an open and free society that follows a rule is a much better place for their talent and aspirations than an authoritarian regime.