On Jan. 6, Zaosong Zheng, a former researcher at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was ordered to leave the United States and return to China after being charged with lying to federal agents about allegedly smuggling cancer research. Zheng agreed to not return to the U.S. for 10 years.
Zheng’s sentencing, however, marks merely the latest development in an ongoing crackdown by the United States government and American universities on “academic espionage,” or the transmission of academic research by scientists at American universities to foreign governments. Multiple Harvard affiliates, including former Chemistry Department Chair Charles M. Lieber, have been subject to criminal proceedings due to alleged misbehavior.
Zheng’s departure from the country came exactly a week ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th U.S. president. With the swearing in of a new administration, experts say they expect to see — or at least hope to see — the U.S. change its tone toward international academic collaboration, particularly with regards to China.
As U.S.-China relations have slowly deteriorated across the span of a Trump presidency, academic exchanges have been caught in the crosshairs. In a 2020 seminar on academic security, FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich said the threat of Chinese academic espionage is one of the nation’s largest security challenges.
“In my 25 years with the FBI, we have faced a lot of challenging threats,” he said. “One that stands out right now as the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and ideas and to our economic vitality and leadership is the threat from the Chinese government.”
While the Trump administration attempted to limit efforts to attract and accommodate international scholars in the U.S., the Chinese government took a markedly different approach, establishing grants and programs to attract international talent. One such effort was the Thousand Talents Plan, established in 2008, hoping to attract scholars from across the globe to contribute to Chinese development.
Tim Byrnes, a member of the Thousand Talents program and an assistant professor of physics at NYU Shanghai, said he has never been required to submit information to the Chinese government since he was first awarded his grant five year ago; however, the Thousand Talents program became a target of suspicion for the U.S. government due to fears of “leakage of intellectual property” from the U.S. to China.
Early in 2020, Lieber — who is also a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty honor — was arrested on one count of lying to the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense regarding his involvement with the Wuhan University of Technology and the Thousand Talents Plan.
In a statement, Marc L. Mukasey, Lieber’s trial counsel — who wrote he chooses to ordinarily “stay out of politics” — wrote that Lieber’s case has been motivated by political overtones.
“It is quite clear from the public record that Charlie Lieber was used as a pawn in the U.S. government’s political chess match with China,” Mukasey wrote. “He was arrested to advance a political agenda, not because he committed any crime.”
However, Claude E. Barfield, a former consultant to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said that there is evidence of Chinese state-sponsored extraction of academic and trade knowledge.
“There is evidence that the Chinese actually selected not only students, but professors, to try to purloin trade secrets and intellectual property and get them back to China one way or the other,” Barfield said.
“Most Chinese students are not part of a spy structure by the Chinese government,” he added.
Charles W. Wessner, a professor of innovation policy at Georgetown University, argued the Chinese government aimed to subvert norms of the academic community.
“What [the Trump administration] have done — which I think was long overdue — is to emphasize the scope and intensity of the efforts by the Chinese government to subvert international academic cooperation by violating many of the norms that are associated with it,” Wessner said.
“When we recruit a Chinese graduate student to work in our labs, they probably should tell us that they’re actually a major in the Chinese army,” he added, referring to a case in June 2020 involving a Chinese army major posing as a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.
Michael A. Szonyi, professor of Chinese history, said the free exchange of ideas inherent in academia — as opposed to proprietary military research, for example — downgrades the threat of so-called academic espionage.
“Virtually all of the research that we do is eventually published in journals that anyone can read — everything that happens in the university,” Szonyi said. “There’s not very much to penetrate at a university because if you do gain access to cutting edge research, how much time — how much advantage — do you buy when that research is going to be published in a journal that is available in every library six months or nine months later?”
He concluded by suggesting that dialogue that “marks off very clearly” collaborative academic research and “genuine national security assets” would help to improve the climate of collaboration.
Denis F. Simon, senior adviser on China affairs to Duke University’s president, also argued institutions of higher education need to create a “code of conduct” to facilitate their exchanges.
“There would be rules of the road about engaging with one another that would have to do with which students can come, which scholars can come, what their obligations are, what their requirements are — and commitments for things like protection of intellectual property,” he added.
Experts said the Trump administration’s higher education policies hindered American universities’ ability to attract international talent and foster international research collaboration.
During the Trump era, the U.S. enacted an assortment of travel bans and executive orders to curb international travel and immigration. Hence, the Trump presidency “was very unpopular outside the borders of the United States,” specifically among intellectuals and academics, according to Boston College political science professor David A. Hopkins ’99.
“The Trump approach to international education was informed by two separate instincts, which were hostility to higher education and hostility to immigration,” Hopkins said. “And the combination of those meant that there was very little interest in the Trump administration in fostering international ties at a level of higher education.”
Jillian Gates, communications officer for the Association of American Universities — of which Harvard is a member — wrote in an emailed statement that Trump’s four years have had “serious impact on research universities and their ability to attract international students, researchers, faculty, and scholars.”
Caroline S. Wagner, an Ohio State professor who researches public policy related to science and technology, said while the Trump administration “sought to reduce the numbers” of foreign scholars who could stay in the U.S., other countries “were taking advantage of that” by actively inviting entry of international talent.
“It’s clear that the fact that the U.S. has been able to attract the best and brightest students and researchers to the United States has been really one of the most important aspects of maintaining leadership,” Wagner said.
“If we want to maintain that vibrant position where we’re an attractive location for smart people from around the world to come, and you want to maintain an innovation-based economy, then you really need to be more liberal in welcoming people and allowing them to stay,” she added.
Byrnes argued the American handling of the Covid-19 pandemic under the Trump administration sparked fears among prospective international scholars of coming to the U.S.
“I think people are really very cautious of going to the U.S. because of the fact that the situation is so terrible in the U.S.,” he said. “It is a real shame actually.”
On the other hand, Hopkins argued the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic in early spring 2020 — including not permitting “the free flow of relevant scientific information as Covid began to spread within China” — also sparked distrust “on both sides of the partisan divide in the United States.”
The pandemic’s first few months, however, did see an increase in the number of U.S.-China research partnerships, Wagner said.
George Q. Daley ’82, dean of Harvard Medical School, described in an emailed statement how HMS has collaborated with researchers from China and several other countries in a five-year effort to study the coronavirus, create more accurate diagnostic tests, and design vaccines, antiviral therapies, and treatments.
“Our collective quest to vanquish COVID-19, as well as with other pathogens, will not be possible without collaborative, open-border science,” Daley wrote.
Lynn C. Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities — of which Harvard is a member — said that the need for global collaboration has been heightened by the recent pandemic.
“It seems more critical than ever as we look at the impact of Covid-19 that unscripted global problems that we are addressing as a global community require international collaboration,” she said.
Simon said cross-border collaboration has facilitated recent innovations in science and technology.
“The purpose of science is in fact the dissemination of information across borders and cultures. We live in a world of innovation in which most of the innovation already is cross border,” Simon explained.
“If you would look at the citation index in any particular field, you would see that increasingly most of the articles are not single author or even single country authored, but they are co-authored by people from several different countries,” he added.
Though Simon said there are certain risks from international exchange, he contends that the Trump administration’s policies towards international academic collaboration deter potential cooperation, particularly with regards to Chinese students and academic exchange.
“I think it sent a chill down the spine of a number of people who were afraid, simply by virtue of coming to the United States and engaging in scientific collaboration, that they could become the object of accusation or innuendo,” he said.
“They have sought alternative options in Europe or Japan perhaps, or in Singapore, where they’re not faced with the same kind of direct and explicit constraints,” he added.
Pasquerella, too, said that the Trump administration’s policies have had the effect of creating an unwelcome atmosphere for international collaborators.
“[The policies] seem to be nothing more than retributive, retaliatory, and xenopobic, and at the end, sending a message that you're not welcome here, we view you with suspicion and, we're not going to work together toward pursuing the truth,” Pasquerella said.
Data from the U.S. Department of State reveals that the number of international students in the United States decreased by 1.8 percent between 2019-2020 and the previous academic year — the first decrease since 2005-2006, according to the report.
Szonyi said that the impact of the Trump administration’s policies has been “enormously counter-productive.”
“American universities are the best in the world, precisely because of their openness, precisely because for the better part of at least half a century, American universities are where the talent of the world wants to come,” he said.
However, Wessner said much of the blame for the mistreatment of Chinese scholars is incumbent upon the Chinese government’s own policies.
“I would be very surprised if there’s any change in those policies,” he said of Chinese agents engaged in so-called academic espionage. “Stealing our IP is considered good sport, patriotic duty. That makes it harder for Chinese students, for Chinese citizens, and for Americans of Chinese descent.”
Thawing the tense U.S.-China relationship is possible, according to Byrnes, but will require Biden and future U.S. presidents to contend with “very thorny problems” that will not go away after Trump leaves the Oval Office. These include lingering concerns about China’s use of academic partnerships to gain advantage in terms of industry or military power.
William C. Kirby, a professor at Harvard Business School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who conducts research on contemporary China, outlined several steps he hopes Biden will take “on day two” in office.
“I would hope that we will see changes in the restrictions for F1 visas, which are highly skewed to penalize Chinese students,” Kirby said. “Second, Trump ended overnight, without any reason given, the Fulbright program with China, but that would be a very easy thing to reset.”
Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, director of Government Relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the Biden administration will also need to make structural changes to the operation of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and other agencies, which currently are grappling with significant backlogs and hikes in processing times.
“Structural changes need to be made before we can even pass legislation so that if we create legalization for potential workers, or DACA or TPS recipients, or individuals that hold doctoral degrees, the agency has to be able to process those,” Dalal-Dheini said.
Ned C. Price, a spokesperson for Biden’s transition team, declined to comment on potential plans of reversing President Trump’s policies that have affected higher education, instead referring to published policy on the campaign website.
“Biden believes that foreign graduates of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree and that losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness,” the site reads.
Barfield, however, said he was skeptical of any broad-sweeping changes that the Biden administration would implement with regards to China.
“The Biden administration is going to be very careful in terms of the changes it makes to Trump’s policies, whether they’re economic policies or political policies toward China,” he said. “Biden is being aware of the potential — the political dangers — for seeming soft on China.”
Pasquerella, nonetheless, said she was positive about the Biden administration’s proposed changes.
“There are legitimate concerns about safety in the U.S. when we’re dealing with any foreign government, but the policies that have been enacted seem straightforwardly xenophobic,” Pasquerella said.
“The Biden administration has a counter narrative, one that welcomes diversity and is making it easier for qualified individuals to become green card holders, to obtain citizenship, and to work here,” she added.
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at email@example.com.