About the author: Christopher S. Tang is a University Distinguished Professor and Edward W. Carter chair in business administration at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Scientists and engineers of Chinese descent are relinquishing their corporate positions or tenured positions at top-tier U.S. institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Princeton at an unprecedented rate. To make matters worse, many of them are leaving for China to compete against the United States. More than 1,400 Chinese scientists left the United States for China in 2021.
The inflow of Chinese students is also on the decline.
A significant percentage of STEM researchers, workers and students in the U.S. are of Chinese descent. Should this trend continue, it could create a major challenge for the U.S. as it tries to compete, especially since China is already leading in several key scientific metrics such as the number of patents filed each year.
President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 into law in August to revitalize domestic manufacturing of semiconductors and to compete with China in science and technology. To implement this multibillion dollar bill, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended the establishment of a national microelectronics training network for semiconductor workforce development across academic institutions.
This recommendation is sound, but the implementation is likely to hit a snag as a result of the significant loss of talent.
It’s imperative to curb the outflow of U.S.-trained scientists of Chinese descent and to restore the inflow of Chinese students. To help do so, consider three major underlying causes of this trend.
First, the heightened geopolitical tension between the U.S. and China since the Trump era has stoked suspicion and fear. Under a program called the China Initiative developed by the Department of Justice in 2018 to combat Chinese espionage, some scientists of Chinese descent have been accused of spying for China. Many have been interrogated by FBI agents, and some have been falsely accused.
The witch hunt has created a chilling effect, causing some fearful Chinese scientists to leave the United States for China.
Second, putting political risk aside, Chinese scientists in the United States may feel least included at work, like other Asian Americans. Despite having a strong presence in corporate America, Asian Americans are virtually absent in the executive suites. They represent 12% of the country’s professional workforce, yet in recent years less than 1% of S&P 500 CEOs were of East Asian descent. Also, Asian-Americans are the least likely group to be promoted to management—less likely than Black and Hispanic workers.
Like other Asian Americans, Chinese professionals, athletes and scientists in the U.S. are often portrayed as well-educated, hard-working, successful, “over-represented,” and “white-adjacent.” As such, they are regularly left out of discussions about discrimination in the workplace and overlooked for promotion. In fact, Asians are often excluded in diversity and inclusion plans entirely.
Worse, in the face of rising animosity towards China and people of Chinese descent, some diversity and inclusion efforts that encourage workers to advertise their ethnic or cultural heritage at work could easily backfire, turning these employees into targets for mistreatment.
While the future prospects for Chinese scientists and professionals in the United States look dim at best and hostile at worst, universities and companies in China are wooing scientists and professionals of Chinese descent by offering senior positions with higher compensation. Weighing these two options, many are opting to return to China.
Third, since the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan in late 2019, many people of Chinese descent had been mistreated at work in the United States due to prejudice associated with the virus. This negative sentiment has manifested into hatred, triggering a staggering increase of hate crimes against Asians in the United States by 339% in 2021.
Some U.S.-trained Chinese scientists and Chinese students may feel unwelcome in the United States. Worse, the killing of Chinese student Shaoxiong Zheng on the University of Chicago’s campus in broad daylight in 2021 sent a shock wave through the community of Chinese scholars and students in the United States.
The heightened safety concerns over hate crimes against Asians in the United States have nudged more Chinese scholars to leave the United States for China. At the same time, many Chinese students prefer to study in China or somewhere that is safer than the United States.
The increasing outflow of Chinese scientists and the decreasing inflow of Chinese students may hurt the United States while benefiting China. It is reminiscent of an unfortunate incident when the U.S. trained Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen of Caltech was under house arrest for 5 years after being accused of Communist sympathies in the 50s. Upon returning to China, Qian helped establish China’s ballistic missile and aerospace programs. Former undersecretary of the Navy Dan Kimball lamented that Qian’s treatment was unjust for Qian and unwise for the United States.
To enrich the research and development in science and technology, the United States should retain and attract all people of talent. We can prevent these kinds of mishaps from happening again by treating everyone, including people of Chinese descent, fairly without preconceived prejudice. At the same time, the U.S. must improve basic and essential public safety. America must uphold the spirit that keeps this nation strong.
Guest commentaries like this one are written by authors outside the Barron’s and MarketWatch newsroom. They reflect the perspective and opinions of the authors. Submit commentary proposals and other feedback to email@example.com.