OPINION: Visa restrictions hurt USC’s Chinese students

The Chinese Ministry of Education issued its first “study abroad alert” of the year last week, warning students that they may be subject to increasing U.S. visa restrictions should they choose to study in America. 

The federal government’s increased suspicion toward Chinese researchers is the latest development in a vicious trade war between Beijing and Washington. 

Fueled by concerns about China’s emergence as a technology powerhouse, the Trump administration seeks to extend “America First” to education — at the expense of Chinese international students.

Visa restrictions are bound to ripple through to USC, where almost a quarter of the student body consists of international students, and nearly half of them are Chinese. 

While a key component of USC’s ethos is its facilitation of international dialogue, government policy renders this mission difficult by alienating talented and deserving scholars. International students only bolster the exchange of ideas essential to college campuses, and new restrictions on visas will hurt the University’s commitment to a diversity of culture and thought. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray claimed that China is exploiting academia’s open research and development environment, comprising a “whole-of-society threat.” In addition, he said that Chinese students systematically act as access agents to America’s technology base, with former CIA officer Joe Augustyn alleging that Chinese graduate students “are briefed when they go and briefed when they come back.” According to them, ignoring academic espionage not only allows China to grow rich off American innovation but also succeed America as the world’s technology leader. 

While the national security threat posed by intellectual property theft is real, the extensive student spy network that the U.S. government fears is far less so. 

A 2018 National Science Foundation study found that nearly 9 out of 10 Chinese PhD students intended to remain in the United States after college. The sheer majority of Chinese students seek job opportunities, not trade secrets, and have little incentive to jeopardize their career growth through illicit activity.

Such sentiments toward Chinese students are loaded with borderline racist undertones, restricting their access simply because of their ethnicity rather than because of any reasonably suspected threat. 

Federal visa policy therefore, effectively serves to single out the Chinese community for special scrutiny.

When the U.S. government describes such students as a “whole-of-society threat,” it is far more acceptable for the campus community to do the same, causing alienation and isolation among Chinese students. They would have to live with uncertainty about their very presence in the United States, serving as a detriment to their mental health and often, their ability to succeed in classes.

Chinese students also significantly contribute to USC’s coffers, and more broadly, the U.S. economy. In all, Chinese students in the U.S. generate $12 billion dollars for the United States — visa restrictions will understandably cause many students who may have wanted to study in America to turn to other countries where they can be more certain about their ability to graduate and work in that country. 

Not only would this result in fewer dollars for both USC and the U.S., it would mean that the University would lose talented prospects who could contribute to valuable research at the school. 

Visa restrictions against Chinese students are ultimately thinly veiled racist policies, and have no positive ramifications for the United States. In fact, such restrictions pose significant harm to colleges and the U.S. economy — especially schools with high international populations like USC.