Steal, Don’t Spurn, Chinese Minds

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Tuesday, the Chinese government held a high-level conference to celebrate Chinese citizens who had received educations abroad and then returned home to use them in service of the country. Chen Shiyi, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, declared that such returnees bore a responsibility to “boost China’s core technology research and development.”

Likely to the delight of Chen and the Chinese government, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump seems determined contribute more graduates to that effort. That same day, it confirmed plans to shorten the validity of visas given to Chinese graduate students, researchers and managers working in high-tech fields such as aviation and robotics, making it more difficult for them to stay in the U.S.

The concerns driving the new U.S. policy are real: Chinese industrial espionage, at times conducted by Chinese citizens studying and working in the U.S., poses a genuine threat to U.S. intellectual property and competitiveness. Yet if the administration really wants to improve America’s technological edge over China, the last thing it should be doing is driving away China’s brightest minds. 

For decades, American research institutions have drawn the world’s top science and engineering talent; the U.S. remains the top destination for internationally mobile graduate students, especially those interested in science and engineering. Between 1985 and 2015, foreign students earned 221,000 science and engineering doctorates in the U.S. Around 64,000 of those students were Chinese.

Those degrees don’t only benefit the Chinese students. For one thing, foreign students often pay higher rates of tuition than locals, thus providing key financial support to universities.

More importantly, foreign graduates have contributed greatly to the pipeline of innovation that fuels U.S. competitiveness. Laboratories that employ researchers and graduate students from diverse national backgrounds have been shown to be more productive than those that lack them — and Chinese students have been shown to be among the most productive of all. In 2016, nearly one-quarter of U.S. tech unicorns had a foreign-born founder who had entered the U.S. as a student.

Foreign-trained scientists and engineers have long been inclined to stay in the U.S. after completing their studies. According to the National Science Foundation, as of 2013, 84 percent of Chinese doctorates remained in the U.S. five years after graduation. It’s little wonder why: Chinese scientists with experience abroad report that despite growing policy and financial support from the government, China’s research environment remains less attractive than elsewhere due to a preponderance of factors, including heavy bureaucratic interference in research programs and short-termism.

That situation is changing quickly, however. Money continues to flow into research projects and the Chinese government is making savvy investments in expensive areas of research not being pursued by the U.S. Even more important, China’s booming tech sector is creating opportunities that many U.S.-trained Chinese scientists find irresistible. According to Chinese government data, the percentage of students (the majority of them undergraduates) returning to China after their studies is steadily increasing, topping 70 percent in 2015. Those who return with science, engineering and management degrees will be key to helping China fulfill its ambitions to dominate the industries of the future, as laid out in the government’s now-notorious China 2025 industrial policy.

In the short term, the administration’s new visa policy may not have a dramatic effect. Chinese students already committed or aspiring to a U.S. education are unlikely to be dissuaded by the need to update their visas on an annual basis.

But the longer-term outlook is more pessimistic. While U.S. research institutions remain global leaders in science and technology, the rest of the world is catching up, and students are noticing. Between 2000 and 2014, the share of internationally mobile students enrolled in the U.S. declined from 25 percent to 19 percent. As Canada and other competing countries open their doors to foreign students, a less restrictive visa policy — especially for students enrolling in programs that could take four years or more — is a key enticement.

Chinese students, suddenly confronted with a policy that applies only to them, might also reasonably conclude that the U.S. wouldn’t be a safe or friendly environment. China’s rapidly improving universities are likely to retain many more of them.

If the Trump administration wants to slow down China’s technological push, it should look to reverse — not accelerate — the numbers of Chinese students headed back home. A good place to start would be to offer Chinese students the same visa rules as students from other countries, so they don’t feel unfairly singled out. Next, foreign students who have obtained graduate degrees in science- and engineering-related fields should be issued green cards upon graduation. If minds really are weapons in this new phase of competition with China, the U.S. should be looking to stockpile as many of them as possible.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.