While President Xi Jinping laid out his vision for China at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2022, sitting quietly behind him was the introverted and discreet professor-turned-politician who crafted ‘Xi Jinping Thought’: Wang Huning 王沪宁. Since the late 1990s, Wang has served three General Secretaries at the highest levels and is China’s top ideologue, or political theorist. In his 1991 book America against America, then-Professor Wang focused on contradictions and conflicts in American society and predicted America’s fall due to domestic strife. He called out America’s systemic racism writing that racial discrimination, particularly against Black Americans, was potentially ‘the biggest social problem’ and may ‘eventually become a fatal problem’. Today, his government is leveraging America’s racial challenges in the race for scientific talent.
Since China’s reform and opening Chinese people have flocked to other countries such as the United States. A study by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology showed that among Chinese nationals who completed a STEM PhD program in the United States between 2000 and 2015, 90 percent were still living in America, compared to 66 percent of graduates from other countries. Put simply, China’s best and brightest have chosen to stay in America as permanent residents or become new Americans. Reversing this brain drain would not only strengthen China’s scientific capabilities but also deal a blow to America’s scientific preeminence. Developing and attracting talent is so important to Xi, that he has gone so far as to say that the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation ‘depends on talent’.
To do this, the Chinese government has offered lucrative incentives to lure talent from abroad, including high salaries, research funding, and educational or housing perks; the goal is to attract scientists, particularly those of Chinese ethnicity. These efforts have received considerable media and scholarly attention and scrutiny in the United States; however, the most powerful tool the PRC has to attract talent may not be one of these programs but rather pitting America against America.
In the final days of the Trump Presidency, in January 2021, the US Attorney for Massachusetts charged Professor Gang Chen with grant fraud and making false statements, felonies that could have landed Chen twenty years in prison. Chen immigrated to the United States from China over thirty years ago and has been an American citizen for over two decades. Yet, at the press conference announcing the charges against Chen, the US Attorney said they ‘were not just about greed, but about [Chen’s] loyalty to China.’ A year later, its case fell apart and the government dropped all charges. Chen was vindicated. ‘We thought we had achieved the American Dream…until this nightmare happened,’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Gang Chen said in February 2022.
Questioning Chen’s loyalty to his country was not only insulting to him and other Chinese Americans. It may also have long-term strategic consequences for America’s race for talent. The US Attorney’s ‘loyalty’ comment fed into a long-standing stereotype that casts Chinese Americans ‘as inherently foreign and therefore not truly “American”’ — the perpetual foreigner stereotype.
Chen is not alone. During the September 2021 trial of Professor Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, US law enforcement agents admitted to falsely accusing him of spying for China, using false information to surveil him and his teenage son for two years, and trying to convince Hu to become an American spy. Ultimately, a court found Hu innocent. Reflecting on the ordeal, he said, ‘It was the darkest time of my life.’
Both Chen and Hu belong to an unfortunate group of ethnically Chinese scientists who became victims of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) ‘China Initiative’. Launched in 2018 under then-President Trump to crack down on economic espionage, trade secrets theft, and hacking by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the ‘China Initiative’ led to the racial targeting of Chinese American academics like Gang Chen and Anming Hu. According to Professor Margaret Lewis of Seton Hall Law School, the focus on ‘China’ was a ‘particularly awkward fit’ for the DOJ and cast suspicion on people exhibiting ‘China-ness’. This could mean being ethnically Chinese, having Mandarin language ability, or having other academic engagements with China. U.S. Attorneys and FBI agents around the country increasingly accused Chinese American scientists at universities for allegedly failing to disclose ties to China even though U.S. foreign disclosure requirements were unclear at the time. Scientists who had previously been encouraged to develop global research engagements were now criminalised for those very engagements.
This outraged both the Asian American and scientific communities. The Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California Berkeley went so far as to say that these investigations were ‘conducted in a manner that does not adhere to our American values.’ The ‘China Initiative’ and its consequences threaten America’s preeminence in science and technology as it has forced people to ask the question of who can attain the American Dream.
The PRC took note and has employed a soft power narrative to capitalise on America’s racial problems. A 2022 report by the PRC’s State Council cited the DOJ’s now-defunct ‘China Initiative’ as an example of the ‘vile and absurd acts of the U.S. law enforcement’ and evidence of the ‘harassment, monitoring and crackdown’ of Chinese scientists by the US government. Moreover, the report cited the ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotype, observing that ‘being regarded as a “permanent alien” is a painful experience shared by many Asian Americans.’
The message from Beijing seems to be that for ethnically Chinese people, the so-called ‘American Dream’ has become more of an American nightmare.
Although the Biden Administration ended the ‘China Initiative’ in February 2022, it had a ‘chilling’ effect that lingers in American academia. The data paints a grim picture. An October 2021 study by the Committee of 100 — an organisation of Chinese Americans in a range of fields dedicated to fostering better relations between the people of the US and China – showed that 50.7 percent of ethnically Chinese scientists feel ‘considerable fear and/or anxiety that they are surveilled by the US government.’
A September 2022 study by the Asian American Scholars Forum suggests that despite harsh pandemic lockdowns in China restricting travel in 2021, over 1,400 U.S.-trained Chinese scientists left their American research institutions for ones in the PRC. This was a 22 percent jump compared to 2020 and 27 percent jump compared to 2019. Moreover, while 89 percent of ethnically Chinese scientists surveyed wanted to contribute to American science, 61 percent have thought about leaving America because of the increasingly hostile climate. So far as the brain drain goes, 1,400 may just be the tip of the iceberg.
As Xi Jinping continues to promote his ‘China Dream’ narrative in China, racial discrimination in America imperils the very values that define America. To dispel the ‘American nightmare’ narrative, the American Dream has to be seen as attainable regardless of background or skin color. As Washington is increasingly focused not on engagement but on competition with China, Professor Jessica Chen Weiss has argued that in becoming so fixated on countering China — through efforts like the ‘China Initiative’ — America risks losing sight of its ‘affirmative interests and values’. As with China’s rise we enter a new age of great power competition, Western liberal democracies should not shy from, but should instead double down on these values, including respect for civil rights and freedom from racial discrimination. If we do not, Wang may ultimately be proven right.