Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 29 May 2024


Expulsions of Chinese Students Spread Confusion From Yale to UVA

A statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. 
A statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  Photographer: Norm Shafer/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Customs agents at US airports have barred entry to at least 20 students and scholars with valid visas since November in ‘more insidious’ version of disbanded China Initiative.


The questions from the US Customs and Border Patrol agent in a windowless room at Dulles International Airport seemed relentless: Was she a member of the Chinese Communist Party? Did she receive scholarship funding from the Chinese government? Who sent her here?

Susan, a second-year Ph.D. student in biomedical imaging at the University of Virginia returning to the US after visiting her parents in China, said she had nothing to do with the Chinese government or its ruling party. But her answers on this exam didn’t matter: Her student visa was canceled, and she was forced to buy a $1,400 one-way ticket back to Beijing. Seventeen hours later, on the last day of last year, she was escorted onto an airplane by armed guards and barred for five years.

“This has really, completely destroyed my life,” Susan, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisals, said in a tearful video interview from her family home in China.

Susan was one of at least 20 Chinese students holding valid visas and studying at universities including Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins who have met a similar fate since November, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Her account and those of others who asked not to be identified were confirmed by their lawyers, blog posts and the Chinese government, which issued an unusual travel warning for Dulles airport in January and said that even Chinese officials invited by the US have been “harassed and interrogated” by Customs agents.

A US Customs and Border Protection officer at Dulles International Airport near Washington.
A US Customs and Border Protection officer at Dulles International Airport near Washington.Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

A spokesman for the Customs agency said it has a duty to protect the nation’s borders and that “all international travelers attempting to enter the United States, including all US citizens, are subject to examination.” He declined to answer questions about procedures, expulsions and individual cases, or to provide any data.

The visa cancellations run counter to efforts to expand educational, cultural and business exchanges endorsed by both US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping when they met in San Francisco in November. And they come as policymakers take other anti-Chinese actions, including a bill seeking to force the sale of TikTok and state measures to bar Chinese nationals from buying property or teaching at public universities.

The expulsions also highlight divisions within the Biden administration. Customs agents, who work for the US Department of Homeland Security, are canceling student visas approved by the State Department. Those visas only allow people to land at US airports, but Customs agents have the power to deny entry. The State Department, which issued 105,000 Chinese student and scholar visas in the fiscal year that ended in September, declined to comment. Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to China, said in a May 8 post on X that “99.9% of Chinese students holding visas encounter no issues upon entering the United States.”

Two years ago, the Biden administration ended a controversial Trump-era policy known as the China Initiative that purported to root out spies but resulted in more ruined careers than successful prosecutions. Now that program has been succeeded by a piecemeal effort — one that’s largely hidden from public view. Instead of targeting prominent academics, Customs agents are expelling Ph.D. and postdoctoral students, as well as company employees, by secret administrative actions with no public accountability or right to appeal.

The secrecy makes what’s going on “much more insidious now,” said Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes academic freedom.

“The end of the China Initiative wasn’t the end, they’re just not calling it that anymore,” said Ivan Kanapathy, senior vice president at Beacon Global Strategies, a national security advisory firm in Washington, and a former National Security Council official in the Trump administration.

For Susan, the Air China flight from Beijing was routine. She slid her passport and visa across the counter at Dulles, as she had done many times before. But this time was different. She was pulled aside by a Customs agent, she said, then interrogated, searched, called a liar and held in solitary confinement in a chilly room overnight before being sent back to China. “I don’t have these relationships, I promise,” she said she told the agent when asked about connections to the Communist Party. “I insist I am innocent.”

In another case, a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Yale who was supposed to defend her thesis in cell biology this year, was detained at Dulles two weeks before Susan by the same Customs agent. Writing under a pseudonym, Meng Fei, she described her 20-hour ordeal in a blog post, saying she was subject to “not only racial but gender discrimination.” She, too, was put on a plane back to China at her own expense and told she was banned from the US for five years. Reached by email, she said the account was accurate but declined to speak further and asked that her real name not be used citing emotional trauma.

Unlike Susan, who says she was never given a reason for her exclusion, Meng was told she was being expelled because of Presidential Proclamation 10043, according to her lawyer, Dan Berger, who has served the Customs agency with a motion to reconsider. The proclamation, which dates to June 2020, seeks to deny student visas to anyone with a connection to universities in China known to engage in what it calls “military-civil fusion,” or actions by or for the Chinese government to acquire foreign technologies to advance its military capabilities.

The US has never published a list of universities banned by the proclamation, though Chinese media have named eight schools that have triggered exclusions, along with funding from the China Scholarship Council, which requires students to return to China after they complete their studies. One person familiar with the rule who requested anonymity to discuss national security matters said the US hasn’t published a list because officials want to be able to expand or change the definitions of what constitutes a threat as needed.

President Biden with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in California in November 2023.
President Biden with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in California in November 2023.Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Berger said he can’t understand why his client would have been subject to the proclamation, as nothing in her background indicates ties to any of the banned universities or to state funding, and her visa was renewed by the State Department just last year. “The list of military-civil fusion universities is simple, but what the boundaries are is unclear,” said Berger. “We’re not seeing any consistent trends pointing to new guidance.” Berger said he hasn’t heard anything from Customs and isn’t aware of any reversals.

Marta Meng, founder of the Meng Law Group in Covina, California, who represents Susan and three other expelled students seeking to overturn their bans, said no reason was given to her clients or in transcripts of the airport interviews that she has reviewed.

That’s a problem for learning institutions, said Toby Smith, who handles government relations and public policy at the Association of American Universities, which acts on behalf of 71 research universities including the University of Virginia, Yale and other schools with recently banned students. “Despite asking for additional clarity, the specific items that would result in visa denial for Chinese graduate students under Proclamation 10043 have never been disclosed to our universities,” he said. “So we have been left only to speculate as to what might spark such denials.”

A spokesman for the University of Virginia said he couldn’t comment on Susan’s case except to say that the university is “working with federal agencies to better understand their approach and what recourse may be available to students who are affected.” A Yale spokesman said the university is working with each affected student to provide legal and funding support, and “when possible, to ensure that they can find ways to seek redress with government agencies so that they can return to the US to continue their research and studies.” For Meng Fei, that may mean defending her thesis remotely from China.

When the Biden administration ended the China Initiative, it said that a 2021 national security memorandum about vetting foreign students would remain in effect. It instructs the State Department to work with Homeland Security to ensure that the granting of visas reflects “the changing nature of risks” to US research. But it doesn’t specify what those risks are or how the agencies should be coordinating enforcement.

“The question is, who is coordinating the whole thing, the guidelines and procedures for law enforcement,” said Steven Pei, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Houston and co-organizer of the Asian Pacific American Justice Task Force, which advocates against racial discrimination. “We are trying hard to balance national security, US competitiveness with China in high tech and civil rights,” he said. “But this top-level policy has not trickled down.”

At the University of Virginia lab where Susan did her research, Soumee Guha, an international student from India, spoke glowingly about her colleague. “She’s one of the sweetest people I have met here,” Guha said one day last month. “She’s always ready to help people.”

Sometimes, when they need to blow off steam, the students shine their cell phone flashlights at a disco ball suspended from the ceiling and dance around. “We tend to grow a different life in a new country,” said Guha. “We go back home, but this is also home.”

Guha and the other students in the lab don’t understand why Susan was expelled, but a clue may be in a description of her work on the university’s website: “Her research interests include medical AI.” Could it be as simple as that, a one-sentence mention of artificial intelligence at a time when the US aims to block China’s advancement in that technology? “That’s the only thing we can think of,” said another associate who asked that his name not be used because he’s not authorized to speak.

Susan’s lawyer said she mentioned her interest in AI when asked by the Customs agent at Dulles what she intended to do after graduation, but that it wasn’t cited as a reason for her expulsion. She told the agent she would be open to returning to China or to staying in the US.

Susan’s empty cubicle at the UVA engineering lab.
The University of Virginia lab where Susan worked and her empty cubicle.Photographer: Sheridan Prasso/Bloomberg

At Susan’s desk, one of eight in the electrical engineering lab, her name remains scrawled in black marker on a glass partition. A few books on a shelf and an empty red chair await her return.

Customs hasn’t responded to her lawyer’s motion to rescind the five-year ban, and there’s no set time frame for it to do so. Though five months have passed, Susan remains traumatized about her treatment. She said she spent her whole life focused on getting a Western education and just wants to use her degree to help with medical issues like improving cancer diagnoses.

“That officer misunderstood and recorded my information incorrectly, then asked me why I didn’t tell the truth,” Susan said, recalling the cold room where she was locked overnight without her eyeglasses, with only a mat on the floor and no privacy to use the toilet. On the airplane home, on New Year’s Eve, she burst into tears when the flight attendant announced it was midnight and other passengers cheered.

Now she sits in a white room in her parents’ apartment in northern China feeling hopeless. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.

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As thousands fled Kyiv in the first days of Russia’s 2022 invasion, one 57-year-old grandmother hurried in the opposite direction. Liudmyla Menyuk was going to sign up for the army to avenge her son who’d been killed fighting the Russians almost a decade before.

Many Ukrainians of Menyuk’s age have volunteered, sometimes motivated — like she was — by the explicit wish to stand in for a youth who might otherwise die in their place. “I performed my duties well,” she told Bloomberg in an interview, “so I could save the life of a young Ukrainian.”

But the enthusiasm of Ukraine’s elder citizens compared with their younger counterparts has turned into a weakness for the country’s army, as the onslaught against it drags into a third year and it struggles to repel Russia’s advances. With his country outgunned and outmanned, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been vocal about the country’s need for weapons — and recently reaped the reward of his appeals. He is quieter on the much more sensitive matter of the need for men.

Front-line soldiers interviewed by Bloomberg said the aid package approved by US Congress last month has started to ease pressure on equipment, which had been heavily rationed so long as the bill’s passage remained uncertain. Yet, despite a new mobilization law lowering the age of the draft, manpower remains a problem.

A mobilization advertisement reading "It's time to win", the recruiting campaign by 92nd Brigade, in Kyiv.Photographer: Julia Kochetova/Bloomberg

“Most of the people I talk to are about 40-45 years old,” said Pavlo Narozhnyi, who raises funds for artillerymen, adding that “younger people — especially younger than 30 — are relatively rare.” A senior military official speaking on condition of anonymity echoed that assessment, citing an average fighting age of 43-45.

As much as the war’s recently stepped up in new theaters — drone strikes on energy installations, missile barrages, attacks on ships in the Baltic — the dispute is fundamentally over territory, and so depends on Ukraine’s ability to replenish its soldiers. And that poses a problem for a country with a third of its adversary’s population.

Until sustaining a major injury last year, Menyuk fought despite her poor hearing and eyesight, while others interviewed for this story complained of heart problems and even ailments that had yet to be properly investigated because of limited access to medical care on the front line.

War veteran Liudmyla Menyuk, now a psychologist, at home where she provides free sessions for soldiers.Photographer: Julia Kochetova/Bloomberg

“It was a problem yesterday. And it is only getting worse,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, who works at Kyiv’s Razumkov Centre think tank, speaking of the aging in Ukraine’s ranks.

Russian troops have unleased their firepower all along the front line and made incremental advances this year, capturing the eastern city of Adviivka in the process.

Last year Vladimir Putin’s former defense minister outlined detailed plans to expand Russia's armed forces even further: to 1.5 million people from 1.15 million now. So far, its military has been attracting soldiers with the promise of generous pay and a new law making it easier for young conscripts to serve at the front line.

In Ukraine, recruitment remains a struggle.

The ethos that the young should avoid the battlefield has been enshrined into law with conscription aimed, until very recently, only at those aged over 27 years old. Recently that was lowered to 25 but the situation is made worse by the ineffective call-up of those who do fall into the target range. In a population displaced by fighting, many young people can’t be found. Only half of the 4.5 million displaced have re-registered at a new address, according to official statistics.

The Backyard Camp, a training camp for civilians and soldiers, mostly focusing on the basic tactical training.Photographer: Julia Kochetova/Bloomberg

Another factor is that mothers who fled their country with teenage sons aren’t sending them back now they’re of age to volunteer, so there are fewer men signing up at the lowest end of eligibility — youths of 18, 19 or 20.

Add to that a demographic backdrop that means there are twice as many Ukrainians in their late thirties, owing to a 1980s baby boom, as in their early twenties, when families grappling with the uncertainties of post-Soviet Ukraine weren’t rushing to have kids.

Aside from the unpopular politics of sending Ukraine’s youth off to die, the exemption for men aged between 18 and 25 from front-line combat is motivated by a belief that they will be key to rebuilding Ukraine in the future, said lawmaker Serhiy Rakhmanin, a member of the parliamentary committee for security and defense.

“We don’t know how long the war will go on for, and what resources we will need, and for how long,” he told Bloomberg in an interview. But that same uncertainty means many older soldiers now suffer from neglected illnesses and traumas that are the costs of fighting a war with no end in sight.

At the beginning of the invasion Vitaliy Pryvrotskyi, who is 52, signed up along with other friends who like him were veterans of the Soviet Afghan war — one advantage of experience some elder Ukrainians have over the younger generation.

“When I was signing up the medical commission didn’t check anything,” Pryvrotskyi, who serves near Kharkiv, said by phone during a moment’s rest from the job he’s been assigned taking care of military vehicles. “They said, look, you’re volunteering for perhaps a few days. The war will be over soon!”

Vitaliy Pryvrotskyi and his son Serhiy.Source: Vitaliy Pryvrotskyi

His wife, he says, worried so much about his being killed but he told her: “We worked hard to earn enough to make our life comfortable. I don’t want the Russians to come and take it all.”

In the end, it was his wife who died. She succumbed to a stroke while he was away fighting, which he attributes to the pain of his absence.

Now, Pryvrotskyi struggles to walk in protective gear for more than 100 feet without feeling constriction in his heart. He is in no position to heed the doctor’s advice that he should avoid stress. Like many, he’s served without interruption since the war’s start without respite.

A night evacuation simulation during a medical training session of a battalion in Eastern Ukraine.Photographer: Julia Kochetova/Bloomberg

The law to lower the conscription age sat on Zelenskiiy’s desk for almost a year before he signed it. One of its goals is to introduce obligatory basic military training for men aged between 18 to 25, lawmaker Rakhmanin said. “A large number of young people do not get any military skills.”

Weighed down by over 4,000 amendments, the legislation — which came into effect on May 18 — also narrows exemptions from military service and makes it harder to dodge the draft. It was meant to contain a provision limiting the time conscripts serve to three years, in order to appease their families, but that was spiked at the behest of military commander Oleksandr Syrskyi.

The language around the war is offputting both to young people and to family members who might otherwise let them fight, according to Melnyk, the analyst. The language of death for the sake of Ukraine is the “wrong approach”, he said. “Nobody wants to send the gene pool to destruction.”

Yulia Razumenko.Source: Yulia Razumenko

That is a prospect that torments 52-year-old servicewoman Yulia Razumenko. She signed up for military service herself in 2022. Years before she had convinced her son to enroll at a military academy, telling him: “Look, if the war breaks out — and it will break out — you are going to have the skills and knowledge to help you fight your fears.”

“On the other hand, I am a mother. Am I really convincing my son to go to war?”

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