‘Painted as spies’: Chinese students, scientists say Trump administration has made life hostile amid battle against COVID-19

by Wills Joe
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On July 23, Juan Tang was ensconced inside the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco when federal officers came to the door with an arrest warrant for the 37-year-old cancer researcher.

Law enforcement officials had already seized Tang’s passport and moved to revoke her visa during an interview in June, ensuring she could not leave the country – but they couldn’t arrest her on foreign diplomatic property.

Tang, a researcher at the University of California-Davis, became hysterical when the consular officials told her about the arrest warrant. Believing she needed medical help, her diplomatic hosts took her to a hospital, according to court papers. Federal law enforcement officers followed closely behind, ready to arrest Tang as soon as she was discharged.

Now, Tang is in the Sacramento County Jail, charged with visa fraud. Tang said on her visa application she had not served in the Chinese military, when in fact she “is a uniformed officer” in the People’s Liberation Army, the Justice Department said in announcing charges against her. The charges against Tang are part of a sweeping initiative from President Donald Trump’s administrationthat targets alleged Chinese government spying and intellectual property theft, particularly at American universities and research labs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Trump officials have given new prominence to the crackdown in recent weeks, delivering scorching speeches casting China as a menace to American democracy and a threat to U.S. national security. Critics say the Trump administration’s rhetoric is inflammatory and its actions have created a hostile climate for Asian students and researchers working and studying in the U.S. – often working on cutting-edge scientific developments. Some argue the aggressive push will backfire, driving away talented students and scientists who fear being profiled because of their ethnicityat a time when the U.S. desperately needs scientific and medical advances to combat a crippling pandemic.

“We face not only the racial hostilities – and a lot of that has been heightened because of COVID-19,” said Yangyang Cheng, a physicist from China who works for Cornell University.

Now, she said, “we’re seeing parallels between my birth country and my adopted home in their rhetoric towards science and scientists – how the state is claiming ownership over scientists themselves, as well as the work they produce. And that is deeply troubling.”

Chinese scientists working or studying in the U.S. feel torn about where they belong, she wrote in an essay last spring: “In their home country, where an authoritarian government is increasing its hold on society, aided by technology for surveillance and censorship? Or in a country whose president actively rejects them, where they are painted as spies?”

The new emphasis on Chinese espionage is part of a broader get-tough-on-China policy from the White House as Trump seeks re-election. U.S.-China tensions have dramatically escalated in recent months amid the coronavirus pandemic, troubled trade negotiations and Beijing’s decision to restrict freedoms in Hong Kong.

The Trump administration has cast the policy in terms of helping the U.S. protect its scientific and technology research, including that related to the pandemic. The president has also used racist language to talk about COVID-19, as he seeks to blame China for the virus’ spread.

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