The Consequences of Curbing Chinese STEM Graduate Student US Visas

Are the costs of curbing visas for Chinese researchers in the United States worth the perceived benefits?

The Consequences of Curbing Chinese STEM Graduate Student US Visas
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Kimberly Bratic, TARDEC

In late May, the Trump administration announced that the length of visas for Chinese graduate students working in certain fields would be cut to one year. Not unexpected, the step is intended to protect advanced U.S. technology from Chinese appropriation, as well as limit the speed of Chinese technological advances. The practical impact of the change remains uncertain, and relatively few students will actually see a change; for the most part it may simply add to the hassle and paperwork that these students face.

The reasoning behind limiting visas is straightforward: U.S. policymakers are concerned that Chinese students acquire too much know-how, both in general terms of human capital development and in specific terms with regard to particular technologies, and that transferring this know-how back to China represents a relative loss of military and scientific capability. Critics of China’s technology transfer policies have often repeated this point, focusing on the idea that making the U.S. educational industry into a world leader has certain costs.

The rules exclude students with green cards (permitting permanent residency in the United States), and those seeking asylum. And Trump has suggested that shifting to a merit-based system would benefit both the United States and advanced students. But the “staple” solution (in which permanent residency is effectively stapled to an advanced degree) won’t resolve the problem. While some policymakers have an abiding faith that anyone who is given the opportunity to stay in the United States will remain, Chinese students have a variety of obligations that tie them to home, not least family and patriotism. And unlike a generation ago, well-educated graduates have ample work opportunities in China. Moreover, the Chinese government has very effectively developed institutions and tools of surveillance to maximize the chances that Chinese students in America will, when the time comes, return home.

As Jack Marr suggests, the protection of intellectual property may come at the cost of innovation. In economic and technological terms, any tightening of visa restrictions hurts the United States. Chinese graduate students provide relatively cheap labor on their path to a degree; this is the basic compact between graduate students, advisors, departments, and universities. There is no vast pool of eager, waiting American graduate student applicants that the Chinese have replaced or pushed aside; much of the work that Chinese students currently do will simply go undone, which will make research universities and research labs less productive. Moreover, while many factors have contributed to the broad, steep increase in tuition at U.S. universities, the willingness of Chinese students to pay full freight has surely played a significant part. If fewer Chinese students come to the United States, and if they reduce the length of their stays, then American universities which have come to depend on their tuition will suffer.

The Trump administration has apparently determined that these costs are worth undercutting China’s technology transfer strategy. It remains to be seen whether the benefits will outweigh the costs.