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Xenophobia is back

This morning, I was sent an innocuous-looking op-ed in the Stanford Review from more than a week ago, entitled “How China Leverages Stanford’s Expertise in Artificial Intelligence.” With a title like that, I expected the piece to be about some specific, concrete incidents of tech transfers or even thefts (like this Daily piece on Huawei, for example). I was shocked by what I found instead: a piece that accuses “U.S. technological education centers” of “aiding Chinese governmental oppression” by way of Chinese international students returning home, labels these students in the US a “national security risk,” and compares teaching them to training nuclear engineers for the Kremlin during the Cold War.

To start, I want to note that it is important to talk about concrete cases of US-China disputes with regards to technology, patents, trade practices and espionage and how they relate to Stanford, especially in an era when US-China relations have become noticeably more tense. However, this Review article mentions no such specifics. Instead, it collectively labels all of the more than 350,000 Chinese nationals currently studying in US universities a security risk based on no evidence whatsoever; if that is not discrimination based on national origin, I do not know what is. I can’t vouch for the innocence of all 350,000 of these students any more than the author of the article can presume their guilt based on, again, no specific evidence. And, frankly, given that our legal system presumes innocence until proven otherwise, I would argue my way feels far more American.

I do find it interesting and ironic that the author would bring up nuclear engineering, because while American universities did not train nuclear scientists for the USSR, there is one country that it did do that for: China. The father of the Chinese nuclear program, H.S. Tsien, was originally a professor at Caltech when the fever of McCarthyism infected the United States. Tsien was under investigation starting in the early 1940s, culminating in his application for naturalization being denied and his security clearance being revoked, even as the rest of his extended family was naturalized. One of his nephews, Roger, was a professor at UCSD and was winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; another nephew, Richard, was the director of the Brain Research Center at Stanford and now teaches at NYU; their father, H.C., was the chief engineer at Boeing.

H.S. Tsien, meanwhile, was unable to continue his research without clearance, and moved back to China after a disgraceful 5-year house arrest, during which he also had to fight trumped-up charges of espionage. As then head of the US Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball put it, “[forcing Tsien out] was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go.”

And stupid it was.

Tsien arrived in China in 1955 and became the so-called “father of Chinese rocketry.” Within ten years, China became a nuclear power. He also lived to see, in 2003, the first Chinese taikonaut in space, propelled there by a rocket based on his designs.

I don’t want to give the impression that Tsien has been the only scientist of Asian descent to have their life and career destroyed by false espionage charges. Rather, these false espionage charges represents a sadly familiar pattern of perceptions of “yellow peril.” Just a few years ago in 2015, Professor Xiaoxing Xi, the Chair of the Physics department at Temple University, was arrested and accused of giving restricted technology to China, only for those charges to be proven false by his colleagues less than four months later (Xi’s daughter, Joyce, actually came to Stanford to speak on several occasions). It was a case that drew parallels with that of Professor Wen Ho Lee, who received $1.6 million in damages (and an extraordinarily long apology from the judge and admissions of fault by then president Bill Clinton) after being false jailed based on charges of espionage. The secrets that Lee was falsely charged with stealing were, ironically, pertaining to US nuclear technology, even though nothing has done more to advance Chinese nuclear technology than that act of xenophobic paranoia against H.S. Tsien all those decades ago; and, more importantly, this pattern of false accusations of espionage that is apparently still being perpetuated today shows that we have learned nothing from “the stupidest thing” this country has ever done in all those decades.

What xenophobes and bigots never seem to understand is that the biggest threat to America isn’t whatever Other they’ve chosen to demonize for the day — it is themselves. H.S. Tsien did not leave the United States because he was a spy. He left because he was forced out by a xenophobic and paranoid McCarthyism that is fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the values of openness, diversity and pluralism that this country was supposed to stand for — values for which so many immigrants who have built this country up to become what it is today believed it stands for when they came.

America has been a welcome refuge and destination for people from all parts of the world because of the diversity and pluralism that it has been able to foster. This is not only what has made this country strong, it has defined our values and our national identity — an identity that the xenophobic grumblings of people like the author of this piece severely undermines. The “yellow peril” stereotype may be centuries old, but the pain felt by people of Chinese descent in America is constantly renewed. In an environment like this, it should not be surprising why people are still coming to the US for travel or to get educated, but not to stay or settle. And, at the end of the day, why would anyone want to stay in a place where they will be accused as being hostile foreign agents for no reason?

The author of the Review article points to “the rapid drop in the percentage of [Chinese] students staying stateside after graduation” as “cause for concern,” and further accused the Chinese government of being “odious.” I can only hope that he would consider the possibility that maybe folks aren’t staying because they don’t feel welcome in a country where people like him feel emboldened to categorically accuse entire groups of people of being foreign spies without so much as a shred of actual evidence. That, I would argue, is pretty odious too.

Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu

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