The Challenge of Decoupling from China

I would re-name the malaise from which we suffer CHINA-19. The acronym might stand for something like China’s Highly Infectious National Arsenal -- readers can supply their own candidates -- though the 19 is only a very specific temporal designator. The problem of China dates from the time of Nixon’s reopening of diplomatic relations in 1972 to the present moment. One recalls the Bushes’ preoccupation with Iraq when the menace was always Jimmy Carter’s Iran. Similarly, the media and Democratic obsession with Russia Russia Russia! was not only wrong and meretricious but completely beside the point; the political and economic threat was always China.

Proposed solutions to the problem of our continued vulnerability to viral epidemics abound, the most significant of which is radical decoupling from China. There has already been considerable friction over trade, cyber espionage and technology -- the controversy over Huawei and 5G being an example of the latter. The COVID pandemic has brought matters to a head.

Senator Tom Cotton wants to ban Chinese students from studying in the U.S. in order to put a stop to the Chinese theft of American cultural property. President Trump is taking the issue seriously, considering the possibility of restricting student visas for Chinese students studying or wishing to study in the U.S. Are these feasible solutions to the problem of infiltration into the most critical sectors of the American scientific, technological, military and information structures and institutions?

“It is wrong to cast an entire group of students, professors, and scientists as a threat to our country based simply on where they come from,” said Patrick Toomey, an ACLU staff lawyer. ” But is it wrong? Is facile moralizing an appropriate response to a severe medical, technological and economic crisis?  Mistakes will certainly be made, but considering that the ACLU is an alt-left, anti-conservative outfit, its advocacy has to be regarded with extreme suspicion.

David Goldman, writing in Asia Times, explains that although he has advocated for selective decoupling from China, he objects to the “popular idea of a total decoupling of the American and Chinese economies.” Imports from China now “amount to a quarter of total U.S. manufacturing output, and…the U.S. doesn’t have the skills to replace a great deal of Chinese production.” Nor does America have enough engineers to take up the slack that disengaging would bring forth -- “China graduated six times as many engineers as the United States.” In fact, “Four out of five U.S. doctoral candidates in electrical engineering and computer science are foreign students, and the largest cohort by far is Chinese.” Most Chinese engineers go back to China because “there aren’t enough faculty jobs around to hire new PhDs.” In other words, if separation is to proceed, it must do so carefully, gingerly and with great foresight, and it may never be entirely possible.

My friend Ed Dougherty, Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Texas A&M University, is apprehensive of our anti-China response to the pandemic. “The fallout,” he writes, “will leave us less able to rebuild our industrial infrastructure, poorer, and with less access to foreign talent…there is concern that our graduate program will be devastated because we are over 80% international, the vast majority from Asia. Research will come to a standstill” (personal communication). As Dougherty has made clear in several articles for Asia Times, American education will have to re-devote itself to the idea of merit and the practice of real-world achievement. This inevitably must include “decoupling” from its preoccupation with self-esteem, gender politics, “social justice” memes, demagogic feminism and utterly useless “culture studies.” Meanwhile, at this time, a Chinese divorce is not a feasible proposition.

On the other hand, Follet Corporation Application and Development Manager Michael Arazan writing at Quora disagrees, pointing out that “Chinese students have been caught now at major college institutions stealing IP [and often] get jobs in the military industrial complex.” Moreover, “the Chinese have been stealing medical IP [and] are hacking into companies.” For further evidence, the Chinese j-10 fighter jet has “been pretty much put together from stolen technologies from the United States [and] even looks like our f-35 JSF.”

Speaking at a Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing in February 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray said: “I think the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They’re [the Chinese] exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it.” With respect to the propagandistic Confucius institutes funded by China and hosted by approximately 100 American universities, Wray was equally skeptical. “We do share concerns about the Confucius institutes. We’ve been watching that development for a while. It’s just one of many tools that they take advantage of.”

Joseph G. Morosco, the assistant director of the Office of the National Manager for Counterintelligence in the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, would concur. “Protecting our national security while maintaining a free and open academic environment is a difficult challenge,” he said in his testimony before the Senate subcommittee [Student Visa Integrity: Protecting Educational Opportunity and National Security]. “Although there are many benefits that international students bring to the United States, we must be clear-eyed about the potential risks. There are many foreign academics and researchers currently attending U.S. institutions from nations that are strategic competitors, including Iran, Russia and the People’s Republic of China. We are particularly concerned about China because it is among the United States’ most formidable economic competitors.”

Though it is late in the game and inordinately costly, the U.S. must begin building its own fabrication plants. Goldman cites Andrew Mitchta of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies to the effect that the “long hard road to de-coupling” must be traveled. “Getting there, however, will not be easy. ‘Re-shoring’ is itself a tidy phrase for a complicated process that will take years to bear fruit,” but it will enable the U.S. to eliminate ‘technological bleed.’ He continues: “According to a recent survey of the Global CFO Council, last year one in five American companies doing business in the People’s Republic of China had their intellectual property stolen.” Moreover, “espionage has become mainstream in our educational and research institutions.”

As a result, “Congress needs to move to restrict access by Chinese students and researchers to our premier educational and research institutions and our engineering and science labs.  The idea that we continue to educate scientists and engineers who will then work for companies owned by the Chinese communist regime defies common sense. We are in a long twilight competition with the Chinese communist regime,” he concludes, “a struggle we cannot escape, whether we like it or not. Now is the time to wake up, develop a new strategy for victory, and to move forward.”

I am not an “expert” and have no particular insight, credibility or inside knowledge regarding this hot-button issue. But I am a concerned citizen and am profoundly skeptical of Chinese involvement in our domestic, educational and trade policies. Australia is practically begging Chinese students to return a.s.a.p., going so far as to offer them subsidies “to minimize the impact of a ban on foreigners arriving from mainland China” -- and, of course, to fill university coffers with Chinese cash. The universities may stay afloat, but Australian security may not. As for my own country, Canada, it seems to have become China’s 27th province. But Canada is just a blip on the political radar screen compared to the U.S., which is still the bellwether of Western civilization on whose destiny the rest of us depend. Too intimate a connection with Chinese industry, technology, medicine and manufacture will eventually strip the trim off our Mustangs.

I recognize that immediate total severance is neither plausible nor advantageous, whether from the perspective of international relations, cutting-edge scientific research, retention of top students or import/export considerations. And the joint economy between China and the U.S. (and other Western nations) is a Gordian-knot affair; it cannot be altogether unravelled, only sliced through, which would create an aftereffect no less critical than a prolonged COVID disaster and one we would need to be willing to weather for future benefits. What, then, would be the proper response to the dilemma in which we now find ourselves?

Is increased surveillance of Chinese nationals and science students really necessary? Are tightened controls possible, though this would smack of the very Chinese police state practices we abhor and reject? Should student visas be issued only for enrollment in lower-level academic disciplines?  How would the introduction of screening measures in sensitive high-tech fields be carried out? Would we be accused of being chauvinists? How important is our political integrity, economic security, national health, scientific research and military edge to us?

My wife sponsored and supervised visiting Chinese teachers and scholars for many years at the University of Ottawa, but they were registered in non-STEM fields. They were almost exclusively women since it would appear that not many Chinese men do literature. And it seemed natural that they would be mainly interested in Canadian women writers. We did not monitor a Chinese student working on a thesis about 19th century Canadian novelist and journalist Sara Jennette Duncan or queen bee Margaret Atwood, or Nobel Laureate, the short-story writer Alice Munro. Our visitors were all pleasant and studious women, some of whom became friends with whom we remained in contact after their return to the Mainland.

But who knows how data-gathering works? Who knows what potentially useful information gleaned from unsuspected quarters may have been relayed to the Chinese government? For example, what was the political climate at the University of Ottawa like? (Suitably left, as it happens.) Some of these visitors had children in the school system in whose curricula and pedagogical methods the Chinese authorities may have been interested. Was the cultural pandemic of feminism an issue which the CCP might have to prepare for and eradicate to preserve its coherence as a State, as we have not. Was feminism a political weakness it could effectively exploit in the competitive framework of relations with the West? Perhaps there were other avenues to explore. Indeed, why did China undertake to spend prodigious sums of hard cash to send female scholars to Canada to study a not particularly robust literature? At times we could not help wondering: were the relationships we enjoyed genuine or were we being played? Did China’s espionage program apply only to the STEM sector or was it far more broad-based?

There are no easy answers to the puzzle, but it should be clear the problem needs to be addressed somehow. CHINA-19 is an epidemic that will not go away anytime soon.


David Solway’s latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London. A CD of his original songs, Partial to Cain, appeared in 2019.

Photo illustration by Monica Showalter with use of Pixabay and SKopp/Wikimedia Commons public domain images.


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