Chinese Students, Academics Say They’re Facing Extra Scrutiny Entering U.S.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
U.S. and Chinese flags are seen in this illustration taken, January 30, 2023.

Stay calm. Answer their questions but don’t volunteer more than asked. Have a lawyer’s number ready. Pack clothing from Western brands, and don’t carry any emblems of the Chinese Communist Party.

These kinds of tips on how to make it through U.S. border control have filled online discussion forums as frustrated Chinese students describe being questioned, sometimes for hours, and having their belongings searched at U.S. airports while on their way to American universities.

Others recount the heartbreak and confusion of being turned away at the border, their visas canceled without a clear explanation.

Chinese scholars, officials and students say they are being unfairly targeted by U.S. border officials, adding to growing doubt and disillusionment among Chinese students – a key source of tuition fees and talent for American universities – about whether coming to the United States is even worth it.

“It used to be that it was an honor to study in the United States. For some parents, it had to be the U.S. or nothing, but that sentiment has weakened,” said Leon Mei, a civil servant in Wuhan, China, whose 17-year-old son is applying to universities in the United States, but also in Britain and Australia.

The frictions are driving a deeper wedge between China and the United States at a time when they’re trying to stabilize relations and tamp down tensions. During a November meeting in California, President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged to welcome more students into their countries. Given the long list of intractable issues, from Taiwan to trade sanctions, boosting student numbers should have been among the easiest to progress on.

This has not been the case.

Chinese nationals studying in the United States have been under extra scrutiny for the past four years, since a Trump-era rule barred students – especially in science and tech fields – with suspected military links.

That policy has continued under the Biden administration. Since the start of the year, Chinese officials have accused the administration of “groundlessly” interrogating and canceling the visas of Chinese students as they arrive at U.S. airports and denying them entry. China’s public security minister, Wang Xiaohong, told Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last month to stop “harassing and interrogating Chinese students for no reason.”

Six Chinese students and two visiting scholars who spoke to The Washington Post described being questioned upon landing in the United States about their research, families and any possible connection to China’s ruling Communist Party. Two of them, their visas canceled, were immediately repatriated. All but one were midway through their studies and had previously been allowed to enter with valid visas.

It is difficult to quantify the number of Chinese students who have been rejected at the border, with both Chinese and U.S. officials declining to provide detailed figures. But the State Department says the number of Chinese students detained and found inadmissible for entry at U.S. ports has remained stable in recent years – representing fewer than 0.1 percent of those who arrive. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security declined to provide figures on how that compared with other nationalities.

For decades, academic exchanges have been a way for people in the world’s two biggest economies to get to know and understand one another better. Chinese students – whose enrollment in U.S. schools nearly tripled between 2009 and 2019 – have been a huge source of revenue for American universities, as well as talent in science, engineering and technology-related fields.

But the deteriorating bilateral environment – and the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic – has seen numbers drop on both sides.

The number of Chinese students in the United States has fallen more than 20 percent from 370,000 in 2019, according to State Department figures.

At the same time, the number of American students in China sits below 1,000, down from more than 10,000 before the pandemic, but that has not stopped China’s leaders from setting an ambitious goal of having 50,000 U.S. students in China within five years.

Part of that decline is due to Beijing’s own crackdown on groups that traditionally support the exchanges – including a 2016 law that brought foreign nongovernmental organizations working in China under the purview of Beijing’s powerful state intelligence authority, the Ministry of State Security. A State Department official said fears of exit bans and wrongful detentions remain front of mind.

Both countries stand to lose from the drop in exchanges.

“No matter how the United States views China – partner or enemy – you need to understand the other side. If this trend continues five years or 10 years, you will lose a generation of China watchers,” said Da Wei, director of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, who was stopped for questioning recently on his way into the United States.

When Eric Xu, 26, finished his graduate degree in data mining and math in Texas last May, he took a vacation to Mexico. Upon his return, he was taken to a small dark room at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for questioning about his studies.

When Xu mentioned his focus on machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, he felt the agent’s tone shift. His computer and phone were taken and searched.

Xu, still on his student visa while waiting for an H1B work visa, was informed that his visa was canceled and he would not be reentering the United States. He was told he was being denied entry on the basis of PP10043, the Trump-era rule banning graduate students suspected of links to China’s military-civil fusion program.

According to Xu, before studying in Dallas, he had attended a low-ranked private college in Nanjing with nominal links to one of China’s “seven sons of national defense,” a group of elite universities involved in military research. The college was a “diploma mill” that no one would put on the same level as the seven sons, he said. “I tried to explain that they’re totally different, but they wouldn’t listen,” he said.

Another Chinese academic said he didn’t even manage to get into the United States.

The man said he was on his way to start a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University but was held for more than five hours upon arrival at Boston Logan Airport.

“Sitting there and waiting, I felt like a lamb waiting to be slaughtered,” he wrote on Xiaohongshu, China’s answer to Instagram. He posted the questions that officers asked him before denying him entry for allegedly trying to avoid the presidential proclamation by getting a work visa instead of a student visa.

He spoke to The Post to confirm his account but declined to speak further out of concern for family still in China.

Harvard declined to comment, and Customs and Border Protection said it would not comment on individual decisions. But it said in a statement that “all international travelers attempting to enter the United States, including all U.S. citizens, are subject to examination.” A senior State Department official added that a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States.

There is no way for students to restore a canceled visa aside from filing a motion to have the decision reviewed by Customs and Border Protection.

Some U.S. lawmakers defend the tough stance on Chinese students, accusing the Chinese Communist Party of weaponizing them as a conduit to take U.S. innovation back to China.

“This needs to stop. … We are quite literally funding our own potential destruction,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of a House panel tasked with countering Beijing, said in a January op-ed. He called on U.S. universities to stop allowing Chinese students with links to People’s Liberation Army-affiliated universities from conducting research in the United States – a practice he said has empowered Beijing’s military modernization.

These tales of visa and entry woes are adding to Chinese concerns about studying in the United States: Students and their families were already worrying about gun crime, anti-Chinese sentiment and the ability to stay on work visas after graduation.

“It’s a lot of money, family money, to have at risk. … It feels like gambling,” said Min, a Maryland-based Chinese student halfway through a science-related graduate degree, who spoke on the condition that her surname be withheld out of concern for her visa status. She said discussions among other students center on fears that a potential Trump administration could mean a further ratcheting-up of restrictions on Chinese students.

Then there’s the worry among Chinese students that spending too much time in the United States could jeopardize their chances of finding work back in China in state-run or other government-linked companies.

For many young Chinese, though, the draw of the United States remains strong. Ashley Chen, 23, a recent graduate of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is applying for doctoral programs in the United States. “It’s about what’s practical,” she said, adding that she wants to go to the best place for political science.

But the increasingly frequent tales of difficulties and uncertainties have some warning that the United States is losing its luster.

Just last month, Clyde Yicheng Wang, an assistant professor in politics and East Asian studies at Washington and Lee University, was questioned by Customs and Border Protection officers as he prepared to board a flight from Charlotte to London.

Were his parents CCP members? Did he know any party members? Wang was surprised. In China, 98 million people have joined the CCP, often for little more than a means of networking.

Wang said his experience at the airport felt more like being in China than a country that bills itself as a beacon of democracy.

“We talk about China being a surveillance state, and you arrive in the U.S. and the U.S. definitely appears to be a surveillance state,” Wang said. “I can definitely see that becoming a moment of disillusion.”