Biden should restore normal people-to-people exchanges

2020-12-17 12:00:10

MA XUEJING/CHINA DAILY The year 2020 has been an annus horribilis for the world economy, global health-and Sino-US relations. Bilateral relations further deteriorated due wholly to the United States' hostile trade and security policies toward China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statement during an interview on Aug 31 is an apt example of why Sino-US ties have deteriorated: "Look, not every Chinese student who is here is working on behalf of or at the behest of, the direction of the Chinese Communist Party, but it's something President Trump has taken a serious, serious look at." In line with Pompeo's remarks, some universities in the US either asked some Chinese students and researchers to leave or expelled them, with the University of North Texas in Denton expelling 15 visiting scholars from China in late August. Since the beginning of this year, the Donald Trump administration has taken a series of measures to block bilateral exchanges, including personnel exchanges, institutional cooperation and joint project construction. Such measures include (but are not limited to) Trump signing an executive order in May banning Chinese students and scholars with ties to the Communist Party of China or government institutions, especially those engaged in "civil-military integration" programs, from pursuing postgraduate studies or research in the US, blacklisting 13 Chinese universities and threatening to enlarge the list in the future, and reduce the visa period for Chinese journalists to 90 days. Also, the US State Department has decided to refer to 10 Chinese media and other organizations as "foreign missions", including Xinhua News Agency, CGTN, China Central Television, People's Daily and Confucius Institute. On June 6, MathWorks, the US developer of MATLAB, a high-performance language for technological computing widely used by engineering students, wrote to the teachers and students of Harbin Engineering University and Harbin Institute of Technology saying they are "prohibited from providing technical or customer support" for the two universities' students "due to recently imposed U.S. government regulation". And US law enforcement officials have arrested four Chinese academics by falsely accusing them of fraud for allegedly hiding their "background related to the People's Liberation Army" when applying for a visa. Targeting of Chinese students, scholars wrong Pompeo, national security advisor Robert C. O'Brien, and some other high-ranking officials have all claimed that the Chinese government uses people-to-people and cultural exchange mechanisms as tools of political propaganda and to steal high-tech and other secrets. By doing so, they have created an excuse for the Trump administration to impose restrictions on cultural and other people-to-people exchanges and ban more students and scholars from studying, visiting or conducting research in the US. This has forced thousands of Chinese students (and their families) who planned to study and work in the US to change their plans, and seek academic and employment opportunities in other countries, especially in Europe. As for domestic tutorial and training institutes that help prepare such students, they have been forced to find other ways to sustain their business. On Aug 26, the University of North Texas sent a letter to 15 visiting researchers from China saying their visa program stands canceled, thus forcing them to leave the US at short notice amid the travel restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The university did not cite any reason for canceling the program-except that the researchers are associated with the Chinese Scholars' Council-and probably made the decision under pressure from Texas politicians, some of whom are zealously pushing the US administration's anti-China agenda devised by politicians such as Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Conflicting signals from US govt and officials Local newspaper Denton Record Chronicle said in an Aug 31 report that the university had stopped working with CSC, while Jim Berscheidt, a spokesman for the UNT, said: "This decision is limited to the 15 visitors funded by the CSC. It does not affect any students enrolled or studying at the university, and we continue to welcome international students from all over the world, including China." He is wrong, for the UNT move is bound to affect other Chinese students.Actually, all the about 369,000 Chinese students studying in the US can feel the change in the atmosphere following the UNT's decision, simply because the 15 visiting scholars are not fundamentally different from them and they could be the next to be "deported". Plus, it is hard to believe that the UNT and other US universities will welcome Chinese students in the same way as before and, more importantly, Chinese students and scholars would be as enthusiastic to study or conduct research in the US. Of course, not all Americans share the views of the incumbent US administration and universities such as the UNT. Many including quite a few faculty members of the UNT support the Chinese scholars and have asked US universities to desist from making such rash and unethical decisions. They also say such decisions will damage the reputation of not only the UNT but also other US universities. They even managed to collect thousands of signatures against the decision within a short period of time. According to an Institute for International Education report, there were about 369,000 Chinese students in US schools during the 2018-19 academic year, up 1 percent year-on-year, accounting for about one-third of all overseas students in the US. The money these students spend while living in the US has over the years helped many states to have a trade surplus with China in the service sector. In fact, a Reuters report says Chinese students studying in the US help generate about $14 billion worth of economic activity each year. Will US universities change their decisions? But are the obvious economic benefits and American people's support for the Chinese students and scholars enough to prompt the UNT to change its decision or the US administration to relax its restrictions on people-to-people and cultural exchanges? Unfortunately, the answer seems "no". Just look at the fate of the Fulbright Cultural Exchange Program. Founded in 1946, the Fulbright program has played an important role in promoting people-to-people and cultural exchanges and enhancing mutual understanding between China and the US. Yet the US administration suspended it on July 14 this year. Sino-US relations are based on mutual understanding between Chinese and American peoples, which is boosted by people-to-people exchanges and healthy diplomacy. But with the US administration abandoning the people-to-people exchange mechanisms, the space for people on the two sides to enhance their mutual understanding has contracted. The Sino-US exchange mechanisms are stagnating, becoming defunct one after another thanks to the "America first" policy of the Trump administration. Which will deal a heavy blow to the interests of both sides in the long run. Changing reality of bilateral relations In September last year, the US embassy in Beijing held an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of Sino-US people-to-people and cultural exchanges. In her speech, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Caroline Casa Grande said the US welcomes Chinese students to study in the US and hopes they can integrate into American culture, and learn from, and progress together with, American students. That is no longer the reality, and the situation may not change if the incoming Joe Biden administration continues to follow its predecessor's destructive foreign policy. So whether or not Sino-US relations, including cultural and people-to-people exchanges, will improve-and whether overall international relations will return to normal-depends on the foreign policy of the incoming US administration.The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily. The author is associated with the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 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