Even as the trade war between China and the United States is far from over, the U.S.-China “visa war” has gradually taken central stage and occupied headlines recently. This seemingly sensational expression refers to the increasing number of Chinese students, scholars, and researchers whose visas are being cancelled by the U.S. government.
In its report published on April 14, The New York Times said that “as many as 30 Chinese professors in the social sciences, heads of academic institutes and experts who help explain government policies, many of them experts in China-U.S. relations, have had their visas to the U.S. cancelled in the past year or put on administrative review. ”
Wang Wen, executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, told the Global Times that “over 280 Chinese scholars have had their U.S. visas canceled or obstructed, or have been harassed by FBI agents since 2018,” though he did not provide the source of that data. Notably, NPR reported that Wang himself has also had his 10-year U.S. business visa “abruptly canceled with no explanation.” Wang said he was told by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that he could apply for a single-entry business visa instead, if he was able to list his last 15 years of travel history.
While the exact number of such instances remains clear, U.S. FBI Director Christopher Wray explained the U.S. government’s rationale in a crystal clear way.
On April 26 at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, D.C., Wray delivered a speech centered around China’s “multilayered threat” to the United States. His wording was remarkably harsh and straightforward.
More than ever, the adversaries’ targets are our nation’s assets — our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China.
China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations. They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China… Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense.
When asked specifically about the issue of “visas involving academics and researchers from China who are not in artificial intelligence,” Wray said that the FBI has seen many instances in which the visa process is “being abused and exploited.” So he concluded that instances of visa cancelation will “happen more and more often.”
In fact, it’s not the first time Wray has expressed such an opinion. As The Diplomat noted earlier, in February, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Wray claimed that Chinese information “collectors” have infiltrated U.S. universities.
To be fair, long before the United States, China has been weaponizing visas for years. Numerous foreign (not only U.S.) scholars, researchers, journalists, and experts have reported and continue to report that their visas have been denied by Chinese government with no explanation.
According to NPR, Michael Pillsbury, a defense scholar critical China who has advised U.S. President Donald Trump, was not issued a visa to China in time for a conference in Beijing. He told NPR that this was the first time he has had a Chinese visa application fail to be approved.
Furthermore, some Chinese scholars whose visas were denied by the U.S. government are not so innocent either, if based on the reciprocal principle. Wang Wen, for example, has been criticizing the United States and boasting about the “China Model” for years.
Wang himself, together with many other Chinese scholars, was singled out by the report China’s Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance, released by the U.S. Hoover Institute. This report warned that “China’s authoritarian system takes advantage of the openness of American society to seek influence, it impedes legitimate efforts by American counterpart institutions to engage Chinese society on a reciprocal basis. ”
In this visa war, the unquestionable “victims” are those students, scholars, and researchers who are genuinely pursuing knowledge and cultural exchange between the two countries. This unfortunate majority is becoming “collateral damage.”