US tensions with China are fraying long-cultivated academic ties. Will the chill hurt US interests?

Dec 23, 2023, 6:12 AM

FILE - American flags are displayed together with Chinese flags on top of a trishaw on Sept. 16, 20...

FILE - American flags are displayed together with Chinese flags on top of a trishaw on Sept. 16, 2018, in Beijing. Over the past four decades, U.S. universities have educated millions of Chinese students, many of whom have stayed in the country and become top researchers and distinguished professors. The number of Chinese students in the United States is down, and U.S.-Chinese research collaboration is shrinking, with academics shying away from potential China projects over fears that seemingly minor missteps could end their careers. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

(AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the 1980s, Fu Xiangdong was a young Chinese virology student who came to the United States to study biochemistry. More than three decades later, he had a prestigious professorship in California and was conducting promising research on Parkinson’s disease.

But now Fu is doing his research at a Chinese university. His American career was derailed as U.S.-China relations unraveled, putting his collaborations with a Chinese university under scrutiny. He ended up resigning.

Fu’s story mirrors the rise and fall of U.S.-China academic engagement.

Beginning in 1978, such cooperation expanded for decades, largely insulated from the fluctuations in relations between the two countries. Today, it’s in decline, with Washington viewing Beijing as a strategic rival and there are growing fears about Chinese spying. The number of Chinese students in the United States is down, and U.S.-Chinese research collaboration is shrinking. Academics are shying away from potential China projects over fears that seemingly minor missteps could end their careers.

This decline isn’t hurting just students and researchers. Analysts say it will undercut American competitiveness and weaken global efforts to address health issues. Previous collaborations have led to significant advances, including in influenza surveillance and vaccine development.

“That’s been really harmful to U.S. science,” said Deborah Seligsohn, a former U.S. diplomat in Beijing and now a political scientist at Villanova University. “We are producing less science because of this falloff.”

For some, given the heightened U.S.-China tensions, the prospect for scientific advances needs to take a back seat to security concerns. In their view, such cooperation aids China by giving it access to sensitive commercial, defense and technological information. They also fear the Chinese government is using its presence in American universities to monitor and harass dissidents.

Those concerns were at the core of the China Initiative, a program begun in 2018 by the Justice Department under the Trump administration to uncover acts of economic espionage. While it failed to catch any spies, the effort did have an impact on researchers in American schools.

Under the initiative, Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was charged in 2021 with hiding links with the Chinese government. Prosecutors eventually dropped all charges, but Chen lost his research group. He said his family went through a hard time and has yet to recover.

Chen said investigations and wrongful prosecutions like his “are pushing out talents.”

“That’s going to hurt U.S. scientific enterprise, hurt U.S. competitiveness,” he said.

The Biden administration ended the China Initiative in 2022, but there are other efforts targeting scholars with Chinese connections.

In Florida, a state law aimed at curbing influences from foreign countries has raised concerns that students from China could effectively be banned from labs at the state’s public universities.

This month, a group of Republican senators expressed concerns about Beijing’s influence on American campuses through student groups and urged the Justice Department to determine whether such groups should be registered as foreign agents.

Miles Yu, director of the China Center at Hudson Institute, said Beijing has exploited U.S. higher education and research institutes to modernize its economy and military.

“For some time, out of cultural, self-interest reasons, many people have double loyalty, erroneously thinking it’s OK to serve the interests of both the U.S. and China,” Yu said.

The U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement — the first major pact between the two countries, signed in 1979 — was set to lapse this year. In August, Congress extended the agreement by six months, but its future also hangs in the balance.

If there is a new agreement, it should take into account new advances in science and technology, Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, said recently.

There were only 700 American students studying in China, Burns said, compared with nearly 300,000 Chinese students in the U.S., which is down from a peak of about 372,000 in 2019-2020.

By October, nearly all Confucius Institutes, a Beijing-backed Chinese language and culture program, had closed on American university campuses. Their number fell from about 100 in 2019 to fewer than five now, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The National Institute of Health in 2018 began an investigation into foreign ties by asking dozens of American institutions to look into whether their faculty members might have violated policies regarding use of federal money, usually in cases involving partnerships with Chinese institutions.

In the case of Fu, then a professor at the University of California, San Diego, his links with Wuhan University were the focus of the NIH investigation. Fu insisted that federal money was never used toward work there, according to the local news outlet La Jolla Light, but the university ruled against him.

In a China Initiative case, Charles Lieber, a former chair of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, was found guilty in December 2021 of lying to the federal government about his affiliations with a Chinese university and a Chinese government talent-recruitment program.

Chen, the MIT professor, said once-encouraged collaborations suddenly became problematic. Disclosure rules had been unclear, and in many cases such collaborations had been commended, he said.

“Very few people in the general public understand that most U.S. universities, including MIT, don’t take on any secret research projects on campus,” Chen said. “We aim to publish our research findings.”

The investigations have had negative effects on university campuses. “People are so fearful that, if you check the wrong box, you could be accused of lying to the government,” Chen said.

In June, an academic study published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal said the China Initiative likely has caused widespread fear and anxiety among scientists of Chinese descent.

The study, which surveyed 1,304 scientists of Chinese descent employed by American universities, showed many considered leaving the U.S. or no longer applying for federal grants, the researchers wrote.

An analysis of research papers in the PubMed database showed that, as of 2021, U.S. scientists still co-wrote more papers with scientists from China than from any other country, but those with a history of collaborating with China experienced a decline in research productivity after 2019, soon after the NIH investigation started.

The study, to be published in the PNAS journal by the year’s end, found the impact of U.S.-based scholars in collaboration with China, as measured by citations, fell by 10%.

“It has a chilling effect on science” said Ruixue Jia, the study’s leading researcher, of the NIH investigation. “While researchers tried to finish existing cooperative projects, they were unwilling to start new ones, and the results could become worse. Both countries have been hurt.”

Three months after Fu resigned from the California school, his name appeared on the website of Westlake University, a private research university in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. At Westlake, Fu leads a lab to tackle issues in RNA biology and regenerative medicine.

In August, Fu was joined by Guan Kunliang, a fellow scientist in San Diego, who also was investigated. Guan was banned from applying for NIH grants for two years. Guan didn’t lose his job, but his lab had shrunk. Now, he’s rebuilding a molecular cell biology lab at Westlake.

Li Chenjian, a former vice provost of Peking University, said the talent loss to China is a complicated question and the worry might be overblown because the U.S. remains the go-to place for the world’s best brains and has an excess of talent.

More than 87% of Chinese students who received their doctorates in the U.S. had planned to stay in the U.S. from 2005 to 2015, according to the National Science Foundation. The percentage fell to 73.9 in 2021 but rose to 76.7 in 2022, above the average of 74.3% for all foreign students who had earned research doctorate degrees in the U.S.

Rao Yi, a prominent neurobiologist who returned to China from the U.S. in 2007, said American policies related to the China Initiative were “morally wrong.”

“We will see how long it will take for the U.S. government and its morally upright scientists to correct such mistakes and come around to see the bigger picture of human development, beyond petty-mindedness and shortsightedness,” he said. “Throughout history, it is always the morally corrupt governments which advocate the blocking of scientific communication and persecution of scientists.”


Associated Press writers Christina Larson and Collin Binkley contributed to this report

National News

Associated Press

Sweltering temperatures persist across the US, while floodwaters inundate the Midwest

Millions of Americans sweated through a scorching weekend as temperatures soared across the U.S., while residents were rescued from floodwaters that forced evacuations across the Midwest. One person was killed during flooding in South Dakota, the governor said. From the mid-Atlantic to Maine, across the Great Lakes region, and throughout the West to California, public […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

3 Columbia University administrators put on leave over alleged text exchange at antisemitism panel

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University said it has placed three administrators on leave while it investigates allegations that they exchanged unprofessional text messages while attending a panel discussion about antisemitism on campus. The university said the administrators work for its undergraduate Columbia College, which hosted the panel discussion “Jewish Life on Campus: Past, Present […]

9 hours ago

Associated Press

Man charged in shooting that critically wounded Philadelphia officer, police say

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A 36-year-old Philadelphia man was charged Sunday with attempted murder in connection with a shooting that critically wounded a police officer after a traffic stop, police said. Ramon Rodriguez Vazquez also faces charges that include aggravated assault and home invasion, police said. The 31-year-old officer and his partner stopped a car carrying […]

11 hours ago

Associated Press

California boy, 4, who disappeared from campground found safe after 22 hours alone in wilderness

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A 4-year-old California boy who wandered away from a campground in the Sierra National Forest was found safe after spending 22 hours alone in the wilderness, authorities said. A search-and-rescue team of about 50 officers and volunteers set out around 11 a.m. Thursday after the child was reported missing from the […]

13 hours ago

Associated Press

One man died and five others were hospitalized in downtown St. Louis shooting

ST. LOUIS (AP) — One man is dead and five others have been wounded in a downtown St. Louis shooting, police said. Police believe women were fighting in a park when men stepped in and drew firearms, according to a statement from St. Louis police. The man who died likely was in his mid-twenties and […]

13 hours ago

Associated Press

Michigan sheriff’s deputy fatally shot pursuing a stolen vehicle in Detroit

DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan county sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot while pursing a suspected stolen vehicle in Detroit, the Oakland County sheriff’s office said Sunday. Bradley J. Reckling, who was on duty in an unmarked car, was following a 2022 Chevy Equinox Saturday evening after the vehicle was reported stolen earlier in the day […]

13 hours ago

US tensions with China are fraying long-cultivated academic ties. Will the chill hurt US interests?