UNDER THE CHINA INITIATIVE, the Justice Department has looked into thousands of potential cases, many dealing with lack of disclosure. It has also increased scrutiny of Chinese students and researchers as they return to China, screening their electronic devices at the airport. According to South China Morning Post, U.S. border agents carried out more than 1,100 searches of Chinese nationals in 2019, up 66 percent from the previous year.
Some fear this suspicion toward Chinese scientists will hurt the development of U.S. science and technology, which relies on immigrant scientists, many ethnically Chinese. They point to cases such as that of Sherry Chen, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Ohio who was accused of spying and arrested in 2014. The government dropped her case the following year without explanation—yet she was fired from her job and is still going through litigation related to the accusations.
Demers, the head of the China Initiative, said in the CSIS talk investigators are targeting people based not on their ethnicity but their behavior. He noted the airport screens are targeted, examining the students’ school affiliations in China as well as their field of study: “What we are trying to do is to write with a fine-pointed pencil, as opposed to a big Magic Marker.”
The FBI has also held roundtable discussions with U.S. institutions and the Chinese science community in order to build trust and hear concerns. Aryani Ong, a former civil rights lawyer and activist, sees this as a step in the right direction: “The problem was the FBI using law enforcement as the community education tool.”
Ong believes the government should separate the issue of scientists who don’t fully report their funding from actual economic espionage cases. The TTP is not illegal to join, and universities as well as the U.S. government had encouraged international collaborations until recently. Many researchers apply to grants from all over the world and turn to China because it has the most generous offers. Rather than prosecuting failure to report on a federal level, Ong suggested officials handle such cases by administrative means.
“Some [scientists] don’t appear to fit the profile of spies who have malicious intent to benefit a foreign country,” she said.
Xi, whose home was raided, has since filed a lawsuit against the lead FBI agent who investigated him. Because of the ordeal, his daughter Joyce decided to go into racial justice work after graduation.
In a Talks at Google video, Xi said the experience had reminded him of growing up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard would burst into homes and separate family members.
“We were not expecting it here in the United States,” Xi said. “At least here there is a legal process that allows me to defend myself and clear my name if I have enough money and enough will.”
As U.S.-China relations deteriorate, Christian ministries to Chinese students on U.S. campuses are feeling the toll as well. Nick Romanin, who oversees Chinese student ministries at six universities in the Midwest, said many Chinese students want to stay in the United States after graduation but are now creating contingency plans, fearing their visas could be taken away. Geopolitical tensions have left many students feeling frustrated and scared about their futures.
Romanin said some students felt they were viewed with greater suspicion when going through airport security. Others experienced instances of racism at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
With the Chinese government increasing surveillance on students who study overseas, some Chinese students have become more reluctant to join Bible studies, especially as the pandemic has forced many of these studies online. One ministry worker found that some Chinese scholars weren’t comfortable joining Zoom video app–based Bible studies from their personal devices, but were willing to attend after he lent them tablets.
This year’s pandemic has led to both opportunities and difficulties for international student ministries: On the one hand, it has paused the influx of Chinese students (except for those coming from U.S. high schools or undergraduate studies) and made in-person gatherings more difficult. On the other hand, Romanin found that students who spend much of their time cooped up in their rooms are eager to join outdoor activities like hikes or barbecues. It also allows Romanin to discuss with them how to lean on God when their world is shaken.
Even current U.S.-China politics leads to gospel discussions, Romanin said. “Those are opportunities to talk about what Paul said about Rome: He said to pray for the king, so we teach about recognizing that the government is broken and that we long for the kingdom of heaven.” —J.C.
—Please read WORLD’s report on U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden’s expected foreign policy toward China at wng.org/biden_china_policy.