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When international students

pose a very real risk

API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. The series will look into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on four areas: technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.


As tensions between the United States and China intensify, the former's moves to decouple the two nations appear to extend beyond the economic realm of goods, services and the financial sector.


Washington has now tightened regulation on people-to-people exchanges between the two countries that have served to consolidate the foundation of bilateral friendship for the past half a century.

The U.S. government decided to ban the entry of Chinese graduate students and researchers with links to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and cancel the visas of such people already in the U.S., effective June 1. The ban is said to have affected at least 3,000 people.

Similarly, Republican senators introduced draft legislation in May that would bar Chinese nationals from receiving student or research visas for the U.S. for graduate or postgraduate studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields.

And in July, it was reported that the government is considering a sweeping ban on travel to the U.S. by members of the Chinese Communist Party, which total some 92 million, and their families.

To what extent and under what criteria should the U.S. and other democratic countries restrict entry of people from China going forward? This is a serious question Japan must face squarely as it pursues a decadeslong policy to make its higher education more open to international students.


Sources of distrust

Along with China’s rapid economic growth and globalization, many of the nation’s elites started sending their children overseas. There are currently nearly 370,000 Chinese students in the U.S. — a group which formerly included Chinese President Xi Jinping’s only daughter.

Chinese pupils now make up some 34 percent of international students in the U.S., contributing to the diversity of American campuses as well as their finances.

Such children of Chinese elites have, in a sense, long served as trust-building measures between the two countries. That Chinese elites entrusted the U.S. and its universities with their sons and daughters was an important sign of assurance for the bilateral relationship.

However, students from China, who have played such a key role in maintaining mutual trust between the two countries, are now becoming a source of bilateral distrust. It has been widely recognized that the Chinese government is using some of them as a means of undermining U.S. national security and values.

In 2018, the FBI reported that Chinese students and researchers on science and technology pose a counterintelligence risk to U.S. national security, describing them as “non-traditional collectors” of intellectual property.

And the problem goes beyond the issue of intellectual property. There have been numerous media reports on cases of Chinese consulates in the U.S. working with Chinese student groups to influence educational and research activities in higher education from within universities.

Such attempts by Chinese officials have included putting pressure on universities to cancel invitations to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, or appearances by Chinese speakers who fled their country.

Concerns are also growing over Chinese consulates monitoring and conducting surveillance on not only Chinese students, but even academics, especially China scholars, teaching or doing research in universities around the world.

In China, a university professor who made critical comments about Xi in class was recently arrested after students reported the incident to the authorities.

There is no guarantee that similar cases won’t happen to university teachers in other countries. In Australia, a lecturer who criticized the Chinese government came under fire from Chinese students on social media.



Indeed, China scholars around the world are increasingly worried about a potential spread of self-censorship resulting from fear of being reprimanded by the Chinese government and also putting their research collaborators or family members at risk.

A recent survey of 562 China scholars conducting research outside mainland China showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents agreed that self-censorship is a problem in their field.

While the study finds that physical detention by Chinese authorities is quite rare, many respondents reported the experience of various repressive measures, including difficulty obtaining visas, restrictions on archival research materials or being “taken for tea,” often a euphemism for a warning chat.

Meanwhile, since the manner and the extent to which Chinese consulates interfere with Chinese students is unclear and differs by region, some in Trump’s administration are expressing hostility toward Chinese students as a whole.

If the Trump administration, with its strong anti-immigrant tendency, continues to expand travel restrictions on Chinese nationals without a careful review of criteria, it will arouse controversy at home and abroad, causing a deeper divide in the already politically polarized country.

Beijing has already been condemning Washington’s recent moves to exclude certain groups of Chinese people as the return of the anti-Communist hysteria known as the “Red Scare.” It is also trying to illustrate U.S. restrictions on entry by Chinese people as a means of racial discrimination.

These Chinese narratives are strategically framed to take advantage of the current political environment in the U.S.

Identity politics — issues over the rights of people regarding race, gender or sexual orientation — have been in the spotlight in recent years in the U.S. and have become the center of political tensions between conservatives and liberals. Trump was criticized for calling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” because his opponents saw this as adding fuel to discrimination against Asian Americans, let alone Chinese Americans.

This is why the White House’s report on its strategic approach to China, released in May, cautiously broaches the topic of Chinese students. The report says that while Chinese students in the U.S. should enjoy academic freedom under the American education system, Beijing is attempting to compel Chinese nationals to report on and threaten fellow Chinese students, and protest against events that run counter to its political narrative.

By stressing that the U.S. government is working with universities to protect the rights of Chinese students at American campuses, the report describes the situation as a conflict between the Xi administration and talented Chinese students studying in the U.S. This is to send a political message to people at home and abroad that the Trump administration’s approach toward Chinese students is not merely a part of the “America First” policy with an anti-immigrant tilt.

As a nation built on immigration, and which has strived for freedom and equality and continued to grow by opening its doors to foreign nationals, the issue of a “human” decoupling with China is a particularly delicate issue for Americans. The sensitivity of the issue can also be seen in the history of exclusion first of Chinese immigrants and then of Japanese immigrants in the United States, which cast a long shadow on the Japan-U.S. relationship in the first half of the 20th century.


On the front line

The problem of Chinese students in the U.S. is not an issue unrelated to Japan. There are currently roughly 86,000 Chinese students in Japan, accounting for 41 percent of all international students.

The number of Chinese student groups in universities in Tokyo rose from 72 in 2018 to 94 this year.

Given the recent China-U.S. decoupling over people-to-people exchanges, Japan should be particularly vigilant about the following two points.

First, Japan must strengthen measures against the outflow of sensitive information, considering that Chinese people with links to the military or Chinese students in the field of sciences who were barred from traveling to the U.S. under the new regulations may be coming to Japan instead, and the number of such people is likely to increase in the future.

The Japanese government has already drawn up guidelines to control the export of sensitive technology based on the foreign exchange and foreign trade law, asking universities and university departments that have science courses to use checklists when accepting international students or researchers. That these measures are already in place is reassuring as the first step. The problem is, however, that they are not being fully implemented across Japan.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry on national universities as well as public and private universities with departments in the field of medicine, science and engineering, only about half have an administrative section or internal protocols on export control. The survey showed that among the universities that do not have internal protocols, only 6 percent conducted national security screening when accepting international students and researchers.

Amid the sharp increase of Chinese students and changes in geopolitical situations surrounding Japan in recent years, it is necessary to fill those loopholes as quickly as possible.

Tokyo should expand assistance especially to universities which lack finances and know how to implement export control measures. It is important that universities continue to accept talented Chinese students in the field of science and engineering even after strengthening such measures.


Detention aftershock

Second, it is necessary for the government and universities to work together to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech in Japanese universities so as not to bring about a situation in which China scholars are forced to self-censor.

It was only a year ago that Hokkaido University professor Nobu Iwatani was detained in China on suspicion of spying while he was visiting Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Modern History. Iwatani was released in November after repeated calls from the Japanese government for his release.

Since 2015, 14 Japanese nationals have been detained in China, and nine of them, including an employee of a major trading house, have been handed guilty verdicts, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

The shock the Iwatani incident brought to China academics in Japan is grave. The detention of a Japanese citizen who studies the history of the Sino-Japanese War was simply unprecedented and unexpected.

If other China scholars in Japan feel compelled to restrict their fields of study or refrain from presenting candid views in front of Chinese students due to the risk of putting themselves or others at risk, it will have grave consequences for Japan’s academic freedom and freedom of speech over time. To protect such foundational values of a free country, scholars on China now need to consciously resist any temptation to self-censor, and those around them must deepen understanding of the situation China academics are facing.

Japanese universities and scholars should exchange opinions and work with their counterparts in like-minded countries to come up with a smart solution to the shared challenges.


Next steps

Japan can only genuinely welcome talented international students after instituting thorough measures to maintain and defend the freedom of speech and protect sensitive information and intellectual property in university campuses.

In order to do so, it is time for Japan to treat the issue of Chinese students as a cross-sectional problem related to Japan’s national security, intellectual property and academic freedom and freedom of speech, and begin nationwide counter-measures.

If such measures can deter any potential attackers, it will also lead to protecting the rights of Chinese students who could otherwise be used as Beijing’s political tools.

On the other hand, if the Chinese government accelerates its political maneuvering using Chinese students abroad and no such defensive measures can keep up with the challenges, Japan and other democratic countries may have no other choice but to close their borders to Chinese students.

Furthermore, if Japanese scholars and business people, who have contributed to deepening mutual understanding between Japan and China for decades, continue to be unable to visit China free of security concerns, the Japan-China relationship will deteriorate and become even more tenuous than ever.

Does China want to create such a relationship with Japan and the international society? This is the question Beijing is being asked in the wake of these recent “human” decoupling moves.



Ayumi Teraoka is a Ph.D. candidate with School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.