SINGAPORE (June 4): First trade, then technology -- now talent. The Trump administration has started taking aim at China’s best and brightest in the US, scrutinising researchers with ties to Beijing and restricting student visas.

Several Chinese graduate students and academics told Bloomberg News in recent weeks that they found the US academic and job environment increasingly unfriendly. Emory University dismissed two Chinese-American professors on May 16, and China’s Education Ministry issued a warning Monday on the risks of studying in the US as student visa rejections soar.

“I’m nervous, worried, even saddened by the unnecessary conflict,” said Liu Yuanli, founding director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s China Initiative and now serves as dean of Peking Union Medical College’s School of Public Health in Beijing. “The restrictions on Chinese scholars and students are irrational and go against the very core value that makes US a great nation.”

Liu is a participant in China’s controversial “Thousand Talents” recruitment program, which began in 2008 as a way for Beijing to encourage its brightest citizens abroad to help develop the economy back home. More recently, China has sought to play down the program as US concerns about its activities grow.

Increasing Suspicion
The developments underscore how the trade conflict is fundamentally changing the relationship between to the world’s two largest economies, from one of greater reliance to increasing suspicion. President Donald Trump’s expanding curbs on Chinese goods and China’s move to set up a sweeping blacklist of “unreliable” foreign entities since their trade talks broke down have helped fuel new Wall Street warnings about a possible global recession.

Education has for decades been a strong point of cooperation between the nations, with a surge of Chinese students filling American university coffers while giving the country access to some of the world’s best research hubs. The US hosted more than 360,000 students from China last year, according to a report by the Institute of International Education, more than any other country.

Still, growth has slowed amid the trade tensions, with the number of students rising 3.6% last year -- or roughly half the pace of the previous year. The share of Chinese government-sponsored students refused visas increased to 13.5% in the first three months of this year, compared with 3.2% in the same period of 2018, according to new Chinese government data.

Slower Renewals
Annual student visa renewals, which previously took about three weeks, are now dragging on for months, according to several Chinese doctorate candidates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who asked not to be named over concerns their career prospects could be affected. One of the students said they were leaning toward returning home after graduation, worried that the scrutiny of Chinese scholars could continue for years.

“The actions of the US side are causing a chill in China-US educational exchanges and cooperation,” Xu Yongji, deputy director of the Education Ministry’s Department of International Cooperation and Exchange told a briefing Monday in Beijing. “We hope that the US side will correct its wrong practices as soon as possible, take a more positive attitude, do more things conducive to promoting bilateral educational exchanges and cooperation.”

The ministry criticised what it said were groundless US accusations of “non-traditional espionage activities.” The ministry cautioned Chinese students about the risks of pursuing an American education only to be denied entry far into the process, a message that highlights a change in attitude in Beijing even if it won’t actively curb applications.

“Those in the US who are blocking Chinese students and scholars have another agenda in mind: They are afraid that the Chinese will master advanced technology and that China will walk to the front,” the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, said in a Tuesday commentary. “A precipitous drop in the number of Chinese students studying in the US would certainly send shock waves through the American education industry.”

The US State Department didn’t immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.