Monday, June 10, 2019

U.S. will regret persecuting Chinese American scientists

This was first posted in Asia Times.

In February 2018, Senator Marco Rubio asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to comment on the counterintelligence risk posed by Chinese students in the US. Wray basically said China’s threat is not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat. 

In other words, every Chinese, foreign or American, is a potential spy. Since then Wray has consistently hewed to that point of view in his public speeches and testimony.

What Wray said was nothing new but merely a reflection of institutional racial bias that has characterized the FBI since inception. J. Edgar Hoover, the first director and known for his homophobic bias, saw a commie under every bed and every minority person a security threat.

But it could be said that the exchange at the Congressional hearing with the smirking Rubio marked the beginning of turning on the surveillance screws on Chinese in America be they visitors from China or permanent residents in the US.

The consequent collateral damage from the clampdown has been on prominent Chinese American scientists and on the long-term interest of America. For certain, these developments won’t make America great again.

Emory dismissals latest in a series against Chinese Americans

The most recent victims of apparent xenophobia were a husband and wife team doing work at the medical school of Emory University. Professor Li Xiaojiang has been a tenured professor since 2005. He and his co-director wife, Li Shihua, contributed breakthrough research on Huntington’s disease through genetic engineering, as one of their notable contributions.

Their abrupt dismissal and shutdown of their laboratory was a shock and surprise. The explanation points to White House pressure on National Institutes of Health to crackdown on the possibility of sharing of research results with China. 

Last August, NIH director Francis Collins sent a letter to more than 10,000 American institutes warning about “foreign entities interfering in funding, research and peer review of NIH projects.”

Even though Li’s laboratory received $1.7 million from NIH as recently as fiscal 2018, it would appear that holding dual academic appointments in China and Emory has suddenly became unacceptable and qualified as interference defined by Collins. 

The Li’s have been visiting and teaching in China since 2007 and they claimed that they have always reported their activities in China to Emory. Under the traditions of normal international academic exchange, it was not a problem but is now a problem because of xenophobic policies instituted by the Trump administration.

According to the university, “Emory also takes very seriously its obligation to be a good steward of federal research dollars and to ensure compliance with all funding disclosures and other requirements.” Apparently to the Emory leadership, the threat of agencies withholding federal funding outweighs the importance of academic freedom and human decency.

Prior to Emory’s dismissal of the Li’s, MD Anderson Cancer Center also responded to the NIH letter and began to take action against three Chinese American scientists, two of whom elected to resign rather than endure the review process. 

These are medical research projects whose objectives are to benefit the human race, for heaven’s sake.

Climate change scientist was another

Perhaps one of the most sensational cases recently was Wang Chunzai, another naturalized American citizen. A one-time much published and decorated climate scientist and long-time employee of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he was arrested and charged with accepting payment from China, apparently for about $2000 expense reimbursement that he failed or forgot to report.

By the time, his case came to trial, Wang told his attorney that he wanted to cop a plea to one felony charge and move on with his life. His defense counsel and the prosecuting attorney settled on dismissing all other charges in exchange for guilty plea to one count for time already served, which amounted to the one night when he was arrested. 

The presiding judge was reluctant to make Wang a convicted felon, but Wang explained that once he was arrested, he knew his future in the US was cooked, and he had already lined up a job in China. He couldn’t risk losing his appointment in China because of a lengthy trial. 

Wang is now a member of China’s Academy of Sciences and leading a group doing climate research. This is the kind of work he loves and will be doing it in a country that believes in the need to understand climate change. This is far more important to him than being labeled a convicted felon in the US.

Before Trump’s administration, it was accepted practice that Chinese American scientists—and non-ethnic Chinese as well--can collaborate with counterparts in China, consistent with the tradition of open academic exchange. Many prominent professors from the US held dual appointments. To encourage more visiting scientists, Beijing even instituted a “thousand talents” program. 

Thousand talents program a lightning rod for persecution

The Trump China team considers the thousand talents program as a means for China to gain access to US technology and knowledge. Thus, known participants in the program are targeted for investigation and subsequent prosecution. Ironically, profiling those on the talents program actually facilitates China’s recruitment.

For example, no sooner than when the Li’s were dismissed by Emory, the university in southern China, where Li’s regularly visited, immediately extended employment offer for the two of them to continue their work. The offer came with fully equipped laboratory and even employment for every member of their research team left stranded by Emory.

It would appear that history is repeating itself all over again. In the 1950’s during the hysteria of McCarthyism, the American government hounded the brilliant rocket scientist, Qian Xuesen, a Chinese American and founder of Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. His plan was always to stay in the US but the federal government basically gift wrapped him and sent him to Beijing where he led China’s missile and rocket development.

If America now considers China a military threat, the US has the late Senator Joe McCarthy to thank.

Seeing that the US continue to push the best and brightest out of the US, the next generation of best and brightest from China are losing interest in coming to the US to study. This trend hurts America in at least two ways. 

Discouraging Chinese students from coming will hurt the US more

China has been the source of around one-third of all the international students entering the US, and more Chinese students major in science, technology, engineering or math, so called STEM, than any other country. If they stop coming, many research labs will dry up for lack of graduate students to do the work. Lower tiered schools will also face budget constraint as they are deprived of the full tuition fees that foreign students pay.

China with the four times the population of the US generates more than ten times of university graduates in STEM than the US. Rather than discouraging Chinese students from coming, the US should be devising ways to skim off the best and brightest and entice them to come. 

It’s possible the Luddites in the Trump administration do not understand that students do not come to steal but to work on furthering the knowledge of STEM. They probably also assume that America continue to hold the keys to all scientific advances, even those developed by immigrants from all over. 

In reality, the work by graduates and post-doctoral fellows benefits the school they attend and the country they reside in. 

Consistent with their ignorance, the Trump administration is making it more difficult for students from China to obtain their visas in a timely manner and perhaps not at all after unexplained delay. 

Cao Yuan is the latest victim. He is a prodigy from China now pursuing a doctorate at MIT. He was voted by the prestigious Nature as the first of the ten people who mattered (in science) in 2018. 

Cao discovered that he can achieve superconductivity at room temperature with twisted graphene sheets. In China for a home visit, the visa office at the American consulate is apparently holding up his visa that would enable his return to the US.

It’s not as if Chinese graduate students have to study in the US as a necessary precondition to success. Pan Jianwei did his graduate work in physics in Vienna. He helped China launched the world’s first quantum science satellite to established hack-proof communication between China and Europe. 

His advisor in Vienna was his collaborator. They named the satellite Micius after a 5thcentury BC scientist, a subtle reminder that China was doing science long before there was a United States of America.

What matters is that having to deal with the capricious nature of the American visa offices, Chinese students are increasingly favoring elsewhere over the US. Someday the US may come to realize that they needed the students from China more than the students needed to study in the US.

Liu Yuanli is the Dean of Peking Union Medical College, School of Public Health and one time first dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health. He said, “The restriction on Chinese scholars and students are irrational and go against the very core value that makes US a great nation.” 

Superconductivity that does not require near absolute zero cooling would be a breakthrough on the level of cold fusion and the magic bullet for tumor cells. Just think, whether commercial application of room temperature superconductivity would be first introduced in China or in the US could depend on the whim of some American visa granting clerk. 

That visa clerk may not understand the significance of Cao’s discovery any better than the White House. Sad.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Help. the American imbeciles are coming!

First posted in Asia Times.

Xenophobia coupling with paranoia breeds imbeciles that are capable of only silly and petty actions. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is the latest case in point.

China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC) has offered to put up $50 million to help New York City develop and design state-of-the-art subway cars to replace dilapidated rolling stock in America’s largest subway system, a system that’s more than a century old. 

Schumer immediately demanded that the US Federal government fully vet this proposal based on the fear that China could use the cars to spy on America.

Horrors to Betsy, imagine millions employed in Beijing to listen in on daily commuter conversation on the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) and IND (Independent Subway System) lines. “Hi Joe, how’s the family? Think the Yankees will win the pennant this year?” Blah, blah, blah.

The next thing you know, by piecing the tidbits together, the Chinese would have stolen the top-secret design of the multi-headed missile! Ludicrous? Yes, but there is precedent for this line of illogic.

Twenty years ago, during the height of hysteria around Los Alamos scientist, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, an in-house FBI expert on China publicly claimed that China conducted espionage differently by relying on “grains of sand” approach.

At the time, Paul Moore, one-time head of counter intelligence claimed that Beijing rely on random bits of information collected by ethnic Chinese living in America (each a grain of sand), which when assembled in Beijing became America’s top-secret weapon designs.

Schumer may have been influenced by Moore’s idea of Chinese way of spying, when he asked Department of Commerce to check out CRRC. He probably didn’t know that Moore used to car pool with Robert Hanssen and did not have a clue that he was sitting next to the deadliest Soviet double agent inside the FBI.

Moore could see three Chinese talking to each other at a party to be in the process of passing secrets to China but never saw his buddy, Hanssen, as a spy for the Soviet Union. His racial bias against ethnic Chinese was not that of an isolated individual but reflected an institutional bias of the FBI as an organization.

Last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in Congress saying that Chinese spies are everywhere, that China uses non-traditional collectors of intelligence and poses a whole-of-society threat. Words that slightly differ from Moore but rooted in the same racial prejudice unchanged for at least two decades.

In case you’re wondering, CRRC is the world’s largest manufacturer of railroad cars. As one measure of the advanced technology they owns, CRRC recently announced that they have developed a magnetic levitation train that will go as fast as 600 km/hour.

In the US, CRRC has already won contracts to build replacement subway cars for Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The business arrangement is basically similar for the four cities.

CRRC would ship the outer shells of the cars to the US for assembly, in Springfield Mass for Boston and outside of Chicago for the other three cities. All the components that go inside the car would either be manufactured or sourced from within the US. Thus, the local content would exceed 60%. Each of the two assembly plants would employ 150 or more workers.

The tangible outcome out of the two deals is that the four cities would get state-of-the-art subway cars that are lighter, quieter, safer and at least 20% cheaper than competing bids. The savings for each of the cities would be worth well north of $100 million when the orders are finished.

Since Pullman went out of business decades ago, the US hasn’t had any manufacturers capable of making the rolling stock for passengers. Now with the cooperation of CRRC, the US will have two operations in different parts of the US.

The CRRC deals in the US involve technology transfer from China to the US—none stolen from the US since the US didn’t have any. Even so, there remains parties that object to a Chinese presence in the US rail system. 

One of these is the Rail Security Alliance, self-described as a coalition of rail freight car manufacturers. Ostensibly this organization fear for the safety and security of passengers that ride on cars made by CRRC. Their real agenda is the fear that CRRC will move on to their turf next and take over box car manufacturing as well.

Can’t blame the freight car makers for wanting to protect their livelihood but what about New York, Washington and other metropolitan transit systems that run on annual deficits. If they can’t buy from CRRC, the next largest rail rolling stock manufacturers in the world are Siemens and Alstom. Unfortunately, the American cities can’t afford the prices these “Caucasian” companies charge. 

Easy for Washington politicians to say don’t buy from China but where are the supplemental funds to give to the transit authorities so that they could afford to buy “white” subway cars?

Senator Schumer as Senate’s minority leader is very much part of the dysfunctional establishment in Washington. This group of people knows how to snipe, bicker and even lie as the occasion demands but they do not know how to get anything done.

Schumer among them understands that repairing and rebuilding America’s infrastructure is the highest national priority. But they don’t have a clue on how to get started; they just know that they don’t want Chinese companies such as CRRC to lend a helping hand.

How idiotic is that?