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The Cobbler’s Children

If Chinese-born scientists are taking their skills back home, maybe we should try investing in domestic talent instead.

(Xinhua/Xie Huanchi via Getty Images)

Xiaoliang Xie, a leading expert in genomics and former professor at Harvard, renounced his U.S. citizenship earlier this month in order to pursue the rest of his scientific career in China. He becomes the latest in a trend of academics returning to China after years at Western universities. In May, Yonghao Zhang announced he was leaving the University of Edinburgh after twenty years to head up a hypersonics lab in Beijing. In December, Nieng Yan gave up a position at Princeton University to run a lab in Shenzhen.

The trend is real, according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD looked at the institutional affiliations of the authors of scientific papers and found that in 2021, for the first time, China gained more scientists than the United States.


Why are so many scientists making the jump now? China’s “Thousand Talents Program,” which offers perks and incentives to attract academics and researchers from the West, was launched back in 2008. 

The left’s explanation for the recent exodus is racism. Specifically, they say that Asian scientists resent being racially profiled by the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” which was launched by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018 to investigate Chinese espionage, intellectual property theft, and illegal technology transfer. It led to numerous indictments and convictions. This was in contrast to the period from 2013 to 2016, when the number of people charged by the DOJ with spying for China was zero.

I doubt that the insensitivity of the China Initiative is the real culprit. For one thing, as The American Conservative explained last year, the China Initiative targeted people based on actions, not ethnicity; its most high-profile conviction was the white Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber. For another, the China Initiative was canceled by the Biden administration, which apologized to any Chinese scholars who felt racially targeted. It ended, and they’re still leaving.

A better explanation is that China simply offers better opportunities now than it did fifteen years ago. Chinese-born scientists were happy to stay in the U.S. as long as all the cutting-edge labs were here, but now that their home country has caught up, many prefer to follow their natural loyalties.

The United States should avoid falling behind China in scientific fields like hypersonics, which not only are lucrative but have military applications. Should we do as the left suggests and stop investigating espionage so aggressively? Should we hand out more visas to Chinese applicants who want to work and study in the United States, in order to win the talent race?


Foreign students already outnumber Americans in many graduate science departments. Among full-time graduate students at American universities, 74 percent in electrical engineering are international students; 72 percent in computer and information science; 71 in industrial and manufacturing engineering; 67 percent in economics; and 54 percent in chemical engineering.

Investing in these foreign students only makes sense if we expect the best minds among them to stay here in the U.S. later on. If we no longer expect that, then maybe we should try investing in domestic talent instead.

Xie, who just renounced his American citizenship, got his Ph.D. at the University of California–San Diego and did postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago before being hired by Harvard. At every step of his career, there must have been native Americans who applied for those opportunities and who, in a different world, would not now be taking that education and those years of experience across the Pacific to a country that we may one day face in armed conflict.

In its recent policy brief A Hard Break from China: Protecting the American Market from Subversion by the CCP, the think tank American Compass offers several useful steps to stop China from draining American scientific expertise. One is to keep Presidential Proclamation 10043, banning students with links to the Chinese military from being issued visas for graduate study in the U.S., a Trump-era policy that, unlike the China Initiative, the Biden administration has maintained. 

The New York Times called Proclamation 10043 “paranoid” when Trump announced it. Chinese students should be “exposed to the liberalizing effects of Western institutions,” which would win them over to our way of life, the Times implied. Perhaps this was true once. But if the attractions of the American system are no longer so overwhelming to outsiders, then maybe the policy of filling our universities with Chinese-born students and professors should be rethought from the ground up.


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