After spending a semester online, Wang Ziwei looked forward to meeting fellow students returning to the Washington University campus in St. Louis. However, the 23-year-old finance student said the US had revoked his student visa for security reasons.
Wang is among at least 500 students who, according to the Chinese government, were turned down under a directive by then-President Donald Trump to prevent Beijing from receiving US technology with possible military uses. Students argue that it is too broad and resent the accusation that they are spies.
“The whole thing is nonsense,” said Wang. “What does student finance have to do with the military?”
Students join companies and individuals whose plans have been thwarted by Sino-US tensions over technology and security, Beijing’s military build-up, the origins of the coronavirus, human rights, and conflicting claims to the South China Sea and other areas.
The policy is blocking visas for anyone belonging to the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, or universities that Washington sees as part of the military modernization effort.
US officials say they believe thousands of Chinese students and researchers are participating in programs that encourage them to transfer medical, computer and other sensitive information to China.
Washington cites Beijing’s “civil-military merger” strategy, which treats private companies and universities as assets for the development of Chinese military technology.
“Joint research institutions, universities and private companies are all being exploited to build the future military systems of the People’s Liberation Army – often without their knowledge or consent,” the State Department said in a 2020 report.
Trump’s successor Joe Biden did not provide any information about his approach.
According to The Paper, an online news agency in Shanghai, Chinese officials appealed to US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to lift visa restrictions when she visited in July.
The policy is necessary to “protect the national security interests of the US,” said the US embassy in Beijing in a statement. The directive is a response to “some abuses of the visa process” and “tightly targeted”.
According to the embassy, more than 85,000 visas for Chinese students have been approved in the past four months.
“The figures clearly show that the United States is ready to issue visas to all qualified persons, including Chinese students and scholars,” it said.
China is the largest source of foreign students in the United States, according to the US government. The number was down 20% year over year in 2020, but at 380,000 it was almost twice that of second-tier India.
An engineer for a state aircraft manufacturer said he was turned down to escort a visa for his wife, a visiting scientist in California who studies childhood cancer.
The engineer, who would only give his last name Huang, holds a bachelor’s degree and a degree from the Harbin Institute of Technology in northeast China. It is one of seven schools linked with visa refusal because they are affiliated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, according to Chinese news reports.
“I was insulted,” said Huang. “That I graduated from this school does that mean I’m a spy? What is the difference between that and racism? “
Huang said his wife’s scholarship will last for two to three years, but she will reduce that to one and “sacrifice her career” to avoid being separated from her two children for too long.
“It has a pretty big impact on individuals when one country fights with another,” said Huang.
Rejection letters received by several students cited Trump’s order but did not provide details on the decision. However, some students stated that they received a rejection immediately after being asked which university they attended.
Wang, the finance student, said he was given a visa, but the U.S. embassy later called and said it had been revoked.
Wang graduated from the Beijing Institute of Technology, another university that has been linked to visa denials due to its association with the Department of Industry. Others include Beijing Aerospace University, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Harbin Engineering University and Northwestern Polytechnical University.
Graduates from the Beijing Post and Telecommunications University also say they have been rejected.
Five Chinese scientists at universities in California and Indiana were charged last year with lied about possible military ties when applying for visas. Those charges were dropped in July after the Justice Department said an FBI report showed that such crimes were often unrelated to technology theft.
The Chinese government complained in August that three visa students were refused entry to the United States at Houston Airport after photos of military exercises were found on their cell phones.
Beijing “regrets and strongly rejects the policy” and appeals to the US government to make changes, said State Department spokesman Wang Wenbin.
A group that claims to represent more than 2,000 students and academics has announced plans to file a lawsuit asking a court to lift or limit restrictions.
At Washington University in St. Louis, a “handful of student visas” are affected, according to Kurt Dirks, Vice Chancellor for International Affairs.
Students can start the semester online or wait until next year, Dirks said in an email.
“If they continue to face challenges, the university will work with them so they can complete their program online,” said Dirks.
Monica Ma, 23, said she was refused a U.S. visa to complete a masters degree in information management from Carnegie Mellon University.
The Beijing Post and Telecommunications University graduate said after spending a year in Australia to work on her degree, she must attend Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh in person as she is no longer taught online.
Ma said she had a job offer from an internet company that requires her to graduate. She has postponed her class until next year, hoping to get a visa by then.
“I can’t change it with my efforts. That’s the saddest thing, ”said Ma.
Li Quanyi, an electrical engineering student from southern Guiyang City, said he was accepted by Columbia University but was not given a visa. Li graduated from Beijing Post and Telecommunications University.
Carnegie Mellon and Columbia did not respond to questions sent via email.
Li moved to Hong Kong and said he was happy there.
“I’m not going, even if the rule changes,” Li said. “The United States has refused me, and I’m not going.”