Pawns in a power conflict: Chinese nationals hoping to go back to the U.S. despite uncertainties

Illustration by Marc McKenzie

“Am I looking forward to the U.S.? Of course I am,” said an engineer from Heilongjiang, China, who wishes to be anonymous. Having recently secured a job offer in the U.S., she is one of the thousands of Chinese nationals hoping to work, study, or settle down in “the land of opportunities.” 

Bad things came in three for these Chinese workers and students. First, they cannot begin to apply for visas as the pandemic shut down all U.S. embassies. Second, the Trump administration plans to revoke visas of scholars with ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army. Lastly, President Trump suspended H-1B visas allowing thousands of them to work in the U.S. until the end of the year, and blocks spouses of foreigners employed at U.S. companies. Many more seem to be down the road, including a sweeping visa ban for Chinese Communist Party members and their families. 

However, now they have to bear the brunt of President Trump’s new anti-foreigner restrictions as part of his broader scheme to contain Chinese influence and protect domestic employment. 

Despite their hopes and struggles, they are pawns in the escalating conflict between the world’s most powerful duo. 

Plans disrupted 

The Heilongjiang engineer started applying for jobs based in the U.S. beginning in December 2019 and finally landed on an offer in February. Although preparing materials to apply for an H-1B visa took her a month, her plan to start working in New York in June still looked bright. Yet the pandemic brought everything to a halt and the suspension of H-1B visa extended the halt to next year. 

Lai Feihong’s plan to reunite with her husband in June was delayed first by the coronavirus, then by Trump’s proclamation. Her husband, who came to U.S. for post-doctoral studies on targeting medicine for breast cancer, has bought furniture and a car to prepare for her arrival; likewise, she has settled personal matters in her home city, Shanghai, to get ready for her departure. The time zone difference has made maintaining contact particularly difficult for this newly-wed couple. “Is [the ban] really a humanitarian measure?,” she asked. 

A Chengdu native, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, is studying computer science in a graduate school in New York. He flew back to China for holiday and doesn’t know if he left the U.S. for good. His undergraduate school, Sichuan University in China, is tied to the  China Academy of Engineering Physics, which is China’s nuclear weapons facility. This means that his student visa is at high risk of being revoked. First reported by the New York Times, the possible visa ban is unclear in its definition of ties to military-linked schools, making it uncertain and worrisome for him. 

Fan Guolong, a Hongkonger working on his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Maryland, said that while he is not affected, the growing scrutiny and restrictions on foreign researchers has been disconcerting for his friends working in sensitive fields. Caught in the rivalry of two countries, they might lose access to crucial information or have their visa revoked halfway through their education. “We don’t even know whether we can finish our degree,” he said, “there is not much a foreign national can do.”

”I will keep waiting … keep studying”

For many Chinese youth, the odds are that the US will remain the top destination for work and study. 

According to the 2019 “Open Doors Report”, released by the Institute of International Education (IIE), 133,396 graduate students from China were studying in the U.S., up 2% from the previous year despite growing scrutiny of Washington on students and researchers and increasingly heated diplomatic discourse. 

“I have grown up in China in the first 20-something years and I definitely want to go abroad to explore,” the Chengdu computer science student said. Moreover, studying computer science in the U.S. means world-class educational resources and employment opportunities.

The Heilongjiang engineer’s protracted and bumpy journey to the U.S. does not scare her away. Having studied in the U.S. and worked in Canada, she still sees her place in the U.S., appreciating its climate, culture, employment opportunities, and price levels. 

“Right now, the U.S. is like my love-hate ex-boyfriend, wealthy and handsome. I know he is unreasonable, childish … [but] I can’t get over him. As an adult, it’s better to be realistic: if I want to enjoy the good side, I got to tolerate the bad side,” she said by email. 

Speaking of the difficulties ahead, she said, “perhaps I am not meant to be in the U.S. But I will keep waiting, keep sending resumes,” and if Trump’s push for merit-based immigration policy succeeds, she has to “keep studying and changing to higher-paying jobs.” 

From a broader perspective, Ning Tao, president and partner of Sinovation Ventures, one of China’s leading venture capital businesses with a focus on AI, said the U.S. government’s anti-foreigner and anti-immigration policies will turn away Chinese talents, which would potentially benefit China: “While the U.S. is driving talent away, it is the perfect time for us to race to bring them back.” 

Besides being the potential drivers for China’s technological and economic growth, these young, bright minds could also be used as bargaining chips to achieve diplomatic goals, warned Zhiqun Zhu, chair of the Department of International Relations at Bucknell University and inaugural director of its China Institute in an interview with Times Higher Education. 

Despite changing policies and various obstacles, Zhu said that in the long term, the number of Chinese students studying overseas will only grow, not decrease: “Talk to Chinese parents and students, and you’ll realize how zealous they are.”