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22 Dec, 2021 13:32

The new red scare stalking America

The new red scare stalking America

The conviction of a Harvard professor this week for ‘hiding’ ties to China is a chilling development, with clear parallels to the paranoia over alleged communist infiltration that gripped America in the 1950s.

Charles Lieber, formerly the head of Harvard’s chemistry department, was found guilty of hiding ties to a China-run recruitment programme, in a landmark case that has received a lot of attention. While the ties in themselves are not a crime, he was convicted of “making false statements to authorities, filing false tax returns and failing to report a Chinese bank account.” 

His arrest in 2020 came amid a campaign initiated by the Trump administration known as the China Initiative, which weaponized the FBI to target scholars and scientists in the US who could pose potential espionage risks in the field of science and technology, but also to insinuate and persecute them over even small and legitimate links to China. 

While Lieber is a white American, the scheme has been widely criticized for its aggressive racial profiling of Chinese American scholars, its McCarthyist character, and the damage it does to legitimate research and scholarly work in the US in wielding the sweeping brush of anti-communist paranoia. 

The editor-in-chief of the Chinese edition of the Financial Times, Wang Feng, described the outcome as a “watershed moment,” stating: “Few Chinese American academics will feel safe again in America.”

As with all things China-related, the United States has descended into hysteria, paranoia and irrationality. It has been obsessed with branding all things from that country – be it people or technology products – as a potential espionage threat, in true Cold War fashion. At the root of it all lies the concern that China might overtake the United States in science and critical technologies, topped with the erroneous and racially insinuated assumption that its advances are little more than the product of so-called “technology theft,” which has served as a cliché with which to attack Beijing. 

Everything and anything has been subject to this opportunistic and bad-faith suspicion. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s vice president, once said all Chinese students were sent to the country by the Communist Party to spy and steal. US senators accused Chinese-made subway cars sold to American cities of being ‘spy trains’. Likewise, every single Chinese tech company, such as TikTok, is accused of spying, whether or not there is evidence. Thus, the label of “national security threat,” when playing the “human-rights abuses” card doesn’t work, has been the go-to justification to impose sanctions on Chinese firms.

However, the targeting of scholars based purely on insinuation is more insidious and alarming precisely because of its destructive human impact. It is a grave mistake and miscalculation by Washington. The stereotyping and conflating of all China-associated academics and scholars as potential spies and technology thieves is as prejudiced and racist as it is dismissive of their fundamental talents.

The transformation of the US into a hostile society for those of Chinese origin will ultimately drive these people away from US institutions. What is being missed here is that America, as the world’s leading economy, has long benefited from being on the receiving side of a “brain drain” from poorer countries. The smartest, most talented and highest-achieving people from the developing world naturally gravitate towards where most opportunities lie, putting their home countries at a disadvantage, and slowing down their economic development. 

There has arguably been no country in history that has benefited from migration inflows of talented people more than America, and China has been a big part of that. Millions of Chinese students have studied in the US not because “the Communist Party sent them” in some grand plot, but because it has offered them educational prospects they used never to have at home. Xi Jinping’s daughter even went to Harvard – shouldn’t that tell you everything you need to know? 

And it’s no surprise that, from 2006 to 2008, 90% of Chinese students who completed doctorates in science and engineering in the United States elected to stay in the country. Although China’s universities and industries are now becoming more competitive on the global stage, the facts do not lie: the US is the primary benefactor here.

At least, that was until the door was shut by the new McCarthyites. To be a postgraduate Chinese student in the US in the fields of science and technology now means you are now at risk of being monitored and harassed by authorities, and of being accused of being a spy. 

The Trump administration imposed restrictions to shut Chinese students out of some of the most advanced postgraduate courses. The outcome of the Lieber case serves only to add to that chilling effect by showing how low the bar is. Being a science-based academic in the US and having any ties to China, such as even having a bank account, is enough to implicate you, even if you’ve not engaged in anything illegal. It’s intentionally designed that way to incite fear and deterrence, using a guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset. The system is designed to hurt the innocent in the process.

The United States has become a treacherous place to be a Chinese-associated academic. Where will they go instead? While there are many other Western countries offering opportunities, many of them are slowly flirting with the same McCarthyite train of thought, albeit more subtly. One Chinese scientist friend who works at a company in Germany has been subject to unfounded suspicions, and he’s looking to move back home. And therein is America’s self-defeating mistake: its red-scare tactics will drive talent out of the country and send it back to China, ironically making it easier for Beijing to keep highly qualified workers at the very time it is ramping up its own tech capabilities in the face of US pressure.

This latest drama is yet another example of America isolating and damaging itself in its unquenched thirst for hostility against China. The US has thrived by attracting the skills and innovations of others. Look at how many talented Indians dominate Silicon Valley. Yet it’s now shutting the door to some of the world’s most dedicated, well-educated people. 

This policy, infected by Trumpian racism, didn’t receive proper scrutiny at the time because it was fashionable to be tough on China. However, in the long term, it will cost America far more than any so-called “technology theft” could bring about.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.