Two days after the autumn term began at public research university in the US state of Texas, a group of visiting Chinese researchers were suddenly told they had to go.
In an email sent on August 26, the University of North Texas (UNT) told the researchers that it had cut ties with the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC), a funding programme under China’s Ministry of Education. As a result, their student visas were no longer valid and they had 30 days to leave the country.
No reason was given for the decision but it meant that 15 of the CSC-funded researchers have to leave the United States by the end of September.
One of the affected scholars, a specialist in computer vision and smart systems, said the email caught everyone by surprise, especially as their one-year exchange programme had just two months to go.
“I was very shocked, it was very sudden,” the researcher said. “I didn’t think that this type of situation would happen. I still am not clear about why they did this, and if the university does not reverse the decision, my only choice is to go home.”
The decision closes yet another door on academic exchanges between the US and China, with tensions rising between the two countries over US allegations of intellectual property theft and suspicions about Beijing’s influence on American campuses.
UNT officials did not respond to requests to clarify the reasons for the university’s decision.
In an email to faculty members on Thursday, UNT administrators said the action was “based upon specific and credible information following detailed briefings from federal and local law enforcement”, according to the university’s campus paper North Texas Daily.
“Due to the sensitive nature of this situation, I hope you understand why we are not allowed to share additional information at this time,” the administrators said.
The university said on Twitter that the move was “limited to visiting researchers funded by” CSC and that the school “continues to welcome visiting scholars from around the world, including China”.
A CSC-funded doctoral student at UNT said he was now scrambling to apply to other universities to continue his computer imaging research for another year.
“They should apologise,” he said. “Rational people would all find their comments about refusing to accept Chinese scholars with CSC funding but still welcoming Chinese scholars as disgusting and even comical.
“Without a clear explanation, no Chinese international students will be willing to go to this university for study or academic exchanges.”
The action by UNT comes after US authorities urged universities to be on alert for potential espionage and influence from Chinese government entities, including the CSC.
The CSC supports between 7 to 18 per cent of the 370,000 Chinese students studying in the US, according to a report released in July by Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology.
Notices from Chinese universities say the CSC prioritises funding for studies in “key fields, major projects, frontier technologies, basic research, humanities and social sciences and other urgently needed areas for the country’s national strategy and important industries”.
The CSC also did not respond to requests for comment.
The US authorities are concerned that Chinese researchers on American universities could steal valuable intellectual property that could find its way into the hands of the Chinese military.
To prevent this, it has barred Chinese researchers with ties to the Chinese military from US universities.
In addition, various Chinese students and academics in the US have been accused of espionage in recent months, including a professor at Texas A&M University who is alleged to have collaborated with the Chinese government while working at Nasa.
A Chinese researcher at the University of Virginia was also arrested late last month for alleged theft of trade secrets. A court affidavit said the researcher was “directed by the Chinese Scholarship Council to upload summary reports” on his research every six months, according to the Washington Examiner.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a morning radio show early this week that nearly every Chinese student was under Beijing’s watch.
“You wouldn’t consider them spies in the most formal sense, but many of these students are under enormous pressure as a result of the activity that the Chinese Communist Party is taking back home,” Pompeo said.
But Liang Yuheng, a former UNT student who started a petition calling on the university to explain and reverse its decision, said the scholars posed no threat to the university or the US.
He posted emails sent to the researchers, informing them the university had cut their access to the university’s email, servers, and materials.
“This act surprised these Chinese scholars as they’re not prepared at all,” Liang said. “As far as I know, only the UNT terminated this programme. One of the Chinese scholars majored in hydrology and water resources, and there was no threat for UNT and the US.”
Analysts say that while there were real concerns about potential intellectual property theft and Chinese government influence over Chinese students abroad, US policy overreach was taking a toll on the students.
Eric Fish, author of Chinese Millennials: The Want Generation and researcher of Chinese international students in the US, said it was unclear whether the UNT decision was prompted by an incident, was a pre-emptive cautionary move or was something else entirely.
“It seems almost every month now there’s some new policy floated or enacted that makes life and study in the US more precarious for Chinese students, and that’s on top of the added racism and stress brought on by coronavirus and tense US-China relations,” Fish said.
“If UNT doesn’t give any sort of explanation as to why these scholars are being removed, it could absolutely contribute more widely to many students’ feeling of precarious status.”
Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations at Bucknell University, said that sweeping “espionage” claims against Chinese scholars were “unfounded and politically driven”.
“Many American universities and colleges will lose the talents from China, who not only enrich academic vibrancy and diversity on American campuses, but also contribute to school revenues and local economies,” he said. “It’s a loss for everyone involved.”
China’s foreign ministry said the UNT decision appeared to be another instance of the US undermining exchanges with China.
“Some extremist, anti-China forces have been suppressing China’s strategic need for development, and making numerous lies to stigmatise and demonise students,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Adam Briggle, an associate professor at UNT who is hosting a CSC-sponsored visiting scholar, was among those who signed Liang’s online petition.
On the petition, Briggle described the university’s decision as “unnecessarily blunt and abrupt”, adding there were no allegations against any of the Chinese visiting scholars, “let alone all of them”.
“It is not fair to upend the lives of these scholars – forcing them into perilous legal waters in the midst of a global pandemic – without any specific or credible evidence of wrongdoing,” he wrote.
Meanwhile the Chinese computer imaging researcher looking for a new school said he was worried about more action against students from China.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “I personally still hope there can be smooth and normal people-to-people exchanges between our countries.”
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
More from South China Morning Post:
- China-US relations: Donald Trump planning more curbs on students, says Mike Pompeo
- US accuses Chinese researcher Guan Lei of destroying hard drive
- Detained Chinese scientist Tang Juan to be released on bail as defence cites coronavirus risk
- US charges Nasa researcher linked to China’s talent programme with false statements and wire fraud
- US prosecutors say Chinese researcher is evading arrest in San Francisco consulate
This article The Chinese researchers caught in a US academic no-man’s land first appeared on South China Morning Post