Tensions between the US and China drive the departure of Chinese scientists from US universities.

Tensions between the US and China drive the departure of Chinese scientists from US universities.

HONG KONG—A growing number of scientists and engineers of Chinese descent are giving up permanent positions at top-tier American universities for China or elsewhere, in a sign of the fading appeal of the United States for a group that has been a driver of innovation.

The trend, fueled in part by what many scholars describe as an increasingly hostile political and racial environment, has prompted the Biden administration to work with scholars of Chinese descent to address concerns.

More than 1,400 US-trained Chinese scientists abandoned their US academic or corporate affiliation for a Chinese one in 2021, a 22% increase from the previous year, according to data compiled by researchers at Princeton University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The data, to be released by the advocacy group Asian American Scholar Forum on Friday, is based on changes in addresses listed under authors’ names in academic journals.

US-trained Chinese scientists have returned to China in increasing numbers over the past two decades as the country has become more prosperous and has gained stature as a center of scientific research. In the past decade, China has tried to recruit the best researchers through talent programs, but historically most have chosen to stay in the US.

However, departures from the US rose sharply from 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic coincided with a surge in criminal cases brought against academics under the China Initiative, a US Department of Justice program. the Trump era aimed at countering threats to China’s national security.

President Biden’s Justice Department said it would stop pursuing new cases under the China Initiative in February after a series of botched prosecutions and allegations of racial profiling, but some scientists of Chinese descent said they still feel suspicions are directed toward them and they fear that will continue as long as US-China relations remain strained.

Chinese and Chinese-American scientists who have left the US over the past year include widely cited names from Harvard, MIT and the University of Chicago, including a recipient of the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics.

A survey conducted in the summer of 2021 by researchers at the University of Arizona found that four in 10 scientists of Chinese descent had recently considered leaving the US for fear of being targeted by US government surveillance.

In interviews, nearly 20 ethnic Chinese scientists who have left the US or are contemplating leaving cited anxiety about government persecution and increased violence against people of Asian descent during the pandemic. Some said their thinking was also influenced by other factors, including better pay or proximity to loved ones.

Most of those who spoke to The Wall Street Journal were naturalized and titular US citizens, and many were experts in aerospace and biology, strategically important fields that Beijing has singled out for further investment and that are among the most scrutinized under the China Initiative. .

A Chinese mechanical engineering professor said he left a major American university this summer after more than two decades in the US to join a university in Hong Kong, citing a desire to be closer to his elderly parents and saying he I was fed up with politics. environment in the US The scientist, whose children were born in the US, said the political atmosphere had become so tense that he stopped seeking collaborations with other scientists.

“I didn’t want my Chinese status to expose them to the scrutiny of federal authorities,” he said.

A winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics, he left Harvard University for a position at Tsinghua University in Beijing.


Photo:

Fan Jiashan/Zuma Press

Some Chinese scientists now say they feel trapped given restrictions on academic and speech freedom in China, where scholars often have to attend political education sessions and must be careful not to cross Communist Party political red lines. The country’s strict Covid-19 restrictions have also reduced its appeal.

An artificial intelligence doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, said both factors dampened his initial enthusiasm for returning to China. But he is also worried about becoming a target of the US government.

“It’s really a dilemma,” he said. “You can’t go to China for many reasons. You cannot stay in the United States happily.”

The unease among scientists of Chinese descent comes as Washington seeks to defend its edge in scientific and technological innovation, and China is rapidly narrowing the gap. Congress recently passed the Chip Act to boost American competitiveness in technology, with $80 billion in funding to improve research on core technologies like artificial intelligence.

A 2020 analysis by Chicago-based think tank MacroPolo found that Chinese-born scientists make up nearly 30% of AI researchers working for US institutions.

Chinese and other foreign-born scientists have been a source of national strength, Eric Schmidt, a former chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Inc.

and chairman of the US government’s Homeland Security Commission on AI, he said in an interview. “We should never aspire to isolate ourselves from a country that is home to 1.4 billion, with immense talent.”

In 2019, China-based academics surpassed US-based academics in producing the top 1% of most-cited scientific articles, generally considered a key metric for scientific leadership, according to a study conducted by scholars from the US, China, and the Netherlands.

Increasing global competition for scientific talent means the US should take even more care to make the best researchers feel welcome, said Ann Chih Lin, director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. “Good people get a chance to leave, so why push them?” Mrs. Lin said.

A survey of scientists of Chinese descent conducted by the Asian American Scholar Forum last winter found that 89% said they wanted to contribute to US scientific and technological leadership.

While the scientists who spoke to the Journal said they believed it was important to crack down on Chinese espionage, they said that for many the China Initiative had changed their perception of the United States as a place where they would be free from potential persecution. As an example of the potential risk to the US, some pointed to the example of renowned rocket scientist Qian Xuesen, who moved to China from the US during the McCarthy era and helped build the nuclear weapons and space program. from China.

Fields Medal winner Yau Shing-Tung, one of the highest-profile entrants, left Harvard for a position at Beijing’s Tsinghua University in April. The mathematician, who did not respond to a request for comment, had previously expressed interest in helping China win its first Fields Medal. Mr. Yau also lamented what he described as an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding Chinese students and teachers in the US.

“The United States government used to criticize the academic environment in the Soviet Union,” he said in a speech to Harvard freshmen in September 2021. “I didn’t expect that to be revived here.”

Deputy Attorney General for Homeland Security Matthew Olsen has said he would take Chinese scientists’ concerns into consideration with future investigations and prosecutions.


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JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

One of the architects of the China Initiative, Andrew Lelling, a former US prosecutor in Massachusetts, said earlier this year that the program had succeeded in warning scientists to reconsider their connections to China and putting pressure on universities and grant-making bodies. so that they are more attentive. .

In a statement to the Journal, the Justice Department referred to comments made by Deputy Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen in February, in which he promised to take Chinese scientists’ concerns into account with future investigations and prosecutions.

“Safeguarding the integrity and transparency of research institutions is a matter of national security,” Mr. Olsen said, adding, “But so is ensuring that we continue to attract the best and brightest researchers and scholars to our country. of all the world. .”

A group of senior academics of Chinese descent in the US met with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy several times in the first half of this year in an effort to address their concerns, according to Yiguang Ju. , mechanical and aerospace. Princeton University engineering professor who attended the meetings.

In response to complaints from academics that many of the China Initiative cases stemmed from scientists incorrectly filling out complex forms to reveal research ties to China, the White House office of technology has been working to standardize the disclosure process across government agencies, Mr. Ju and other participants said.

Ms. Lin from Michigan said such procedural changes are welcome but fail to resolve the chilling effect felt by many Chinese academics.

In a statement, the White House technology office said the standardization of disclosure requirements is intended to increase transparency and trust. “We also intend to continue to work closely with various stakeholders in the US research enterprise to create an open and welcoming research environment,” he said.

Write to Sha Hua at sha.hua@wsj.com and Karen Hao at karen.hao@wsj.com

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