Saying China uses grad students and researchers to illegally acquire intellectual property from the United States, President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending their entry into the country.
"The People's Republic of China (PRC) is engaged in a wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of its military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA)," the order stated.
Those students are "detrimental to the interests of the United States," it said and "their entry should be subject to certain restrictions, limitations, and exceptions." The order includes F and J visa holders but does not include undergraduate students or green card holders.
U.S. educators said the move against Chinese students in the U.S. is troubling and counterproductive to diplomacy and international relations.
"China has been the top collaborator with the U.S. in STEM research. As we are grappling with a global pandemic, international collaboration is more critical than ever," Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said in an email to VOA.
"We should also be concerned about the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. and the ways in which this legislation holds the potential for the unintended consequence of creating a permission structure for xenophobic attitudes and actions," she said.
Dr. Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said: "As we await further details on how this new proclamation will be implemented, we are concerned about the effects that it will have on international education and vital research cooperation.
"Policies should be carefully crafted to protect national security, without extinguishing the spark of innovation. Sweeping policies can have the disastrous impact of fueling discrimination," Brimmer said. "That is deeply troubling and the antithesis of what we believe as a country, that all are created equal."
The U.S. hosts more than 1 million international students, with more than one-third being Chinese nationals, according to the Institute of International Education, headquartered in New York.
Chinese students typically pay out of pocket for tuition, fees and expenses, and are seen as a revenue stream for the U.S., bringing $45 billion to the U.S. economy last year. Chinese students contributed $12.55 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016.
But tension between the U.S. and China has been escalating in the past few years over the role of Chinese students in the U.S.
Most Chinese students earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, with business degrees coming in second.
Chinese students have been convicted on espionage and theft of intellectual property. Professors have complained that China sends agents into the classroom to monitor what is being taught and which Chinese students are speaking negatively about the Chinese government.
Republicans and Democrats alike have raised concerns about the authentic role of some Chinese students and researchers.
"The academic sector needs to be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about how others may exploit the very open, collaborative research environment that we have in this country, and revere in this country," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in April 2019 in government hearings about the issue.
In 2017, the Wilson Center, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, reported that a small community of PRC students and diplomats engaged in intimidation tactics ranging from intelligence gathering to financial retaliation.
China has been criticized in the U.S. for its Thousand Talents Plan, a campaign to attract American and other specialists worldwide to accelerate its own academic, research and industry efforts.
That program attracted a top department head in nanoscience at Harvard University, who was charged in January with lying about receiving funding from Chinese research agencies.
In 2018, NIH sent a letter to more than 10,000 research institutions urging them to ensure that NIH grantees are properly reporting their foreign ties. The agency also said it is investigating about a half-dozen cases in which NIH-funded investigators may have broken reporting rules, and it reminded researchers who review grant applications that they should not share proposal information with outsiders.
Critics also point to campus Confucius Institutes and Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSA) as participants in intelligence gathering and political influence. Several nations worldwide have closed their Confucius Institutes.
The Chinese government, which funds Confucius Institutes worldwide, says these organizations disperse information about Chinese culture and society, not political dogma.
In 2014, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement titled, "Confucius Institutes Threaten Academic Freedom."